Image from BBC
A squad lacking in experience, lacking a clear line-up and run by a manager with a questionable managerial record. Recent tournaments have done little to suggest England are ready to turn up on the big stage, but this year we might see something different, and Guardiola and co. could be at the heart of any success England may have.
Now, why on earth would Guardiola have anything to do with England’s success at the World Cup? Well, what if I told you he was managing in Spain when they won the World Cup? And managing in Germany when they won theirs? Don’t laugh too hard, I’m not for one second suggesting Guardiola is the only reason that those nations experienced such success. However we shouldn’t look too much past the work he did at his clubs and how that impacted the national team. The Spanish team that dominated for years was built with the same spine of his great Barcelona team. The likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Jordi Alba, Cesc Fabregas and more all worked under Guardiola during their success and improved as players in their time with the Spaniard. At Bayern Munich, Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Philip Lahm, Mario Gotze, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and others also improved under the Spaniard as they took this form to the World Cup and lifted the trophy in Brazil. Who’s to say he didn’t elevate the players to the level they needed to get to to win the biggest prize in football?
Not convinced yet? Fair enough. When you look at this Manchester City team, it’s not filled with an abundance of English talent and has relied on many purchases from abroad to bring them success. However, the likes of John Stones, Kyle Walker, Fabian Delph and Raheem Sterling have all seen massive improvements under the master-manager, who’s made them all crucial cogs in this unstoppable Man City machine. Four players can’t dictate a team, so surely we can’t witness the same impact that we saw from him when he managed in the other two countries? Perhaps not, but with help from other coaches, there’s still hope. So many players in the England squad are improving in their individual performances under some special managers in the Premier League; Jurgen Klopp has brought the best out of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne and Jordan Henderson; Mauricio Pochetino has done the same for Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose and Eric Dier; Antonio Conte got the best out of Gary Cahill in their title-winning season, and even Jose Mourinho has managed to extract the best from Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford at times despite traditionally pragmatic tactics. Whilst not all these talents have made it to the World Cup, those that have are all vital to England, and the coaches under which they’re working are having a tremendous impact on their performances that they’re carrying into the England team as well. Whilst they weren’t perfect in their warm-up friendlies, they showed glimpses of quality we haven’t seen regularly from England players before, and a tactical understanding in a 3-at-the-back system that’s not been seen by the national team for a while. The influence of all these coaches could give England an edge this summer, a sharpness that others might lack.
When you look at the World Cup squad in 2014, there was undoubted quality in the squad, but no player was being coached under the quality of manager in which they are now. The squad was tainted by ‘experienced players’ who had never experienced anything positive at international tournaments whereas now the squad is filled with fresh, young, exciting and humble talent. No debates about the role of Wayne Rooney, or spaces being taken by an ageing Frank Lampard – this squad is fresh and the players in it are there on merit.
Gareth Southgate has a difficult job, and I don’t feel confident of a great World Cup despite everything I’ve said. I don’t think his system is the way forward and I question the involvement of some players, especially the exclusion of Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana, but regardless of this Southgate is sticking to a plan and if he’s going to fail he’s going to do it his own way, which I admire and shows a confidence many previous managers have lacked. Ultimately, whilst Guardiola did work with a lot of Spain and Germany’s main stars, they did have a quality about them that I’m yet to see from these England players. However, if Southgate can carry the form of his individuals into the World Cup and deploy sensible tactics, there’s a very real chance that England could achieve something beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic fan.