The world’s perennial underachievers in men’s professional soccer, the English national team has been on a slow resurgence for a few years now. Without doubt, most of you will have no clue in the slightest what I’m referring to; Afterall, soccer has always been overlooked in the United States, and so widespread coverage is hard to come by, especially regarding teams not based here. For a bit of context, England have disappointed both their own fans and neutrals with their performances in international tournaments since winning their only World Cup in 1966.The golden generation of the late 90s and early 2000s never progressed beyond the quarterfinals of a major tournament, despite generational talents like David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, John Terry and the list goes on.
After the turn of the 2010s, their fortunes worsened further. With the golden generation phased out, results dropped again, with the English failing to progress past the last 16 in any of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups or the European Championships of 2016 (often referred to as the “Euros”). Their only quarter final came in the 2012 Euros, where they embarrassingly lost on penalty kicks (something they’ve become synonymous with) to Italy. Rock bottom came in 2016, when England lost 2-1 to tiny Iceland, whose total population is just under 360,000, in the round of 16 at the Euros. To put the scale of this embarrassment into context, the population of London alone is nearly 9 million. And yet since that fateful night in June 2016, the English seem to have turned a corner. Manager Roy Hodgson was fired soon after, and under the guidance of new manager Gareth Southgate, they are once again becoming a powerhouse in world soccer.
The World Cup in 2018 saw England reach the semifinal for the first time since 1990, and even look the better side as they went out to finalists Croatia. They won 7 of 8 qualifying matches to top their qualifying group for Euro 2021 as well. Now, with the World Cup approaching quickly in the later months of 2022, the future has never looked brighter for the English. English fans have another uber-talented generation coming through the ranks to look forward to, with the perfect combination of talent and experience having come from the Island nation over the last 3-5 years. Players like striker Harry Kaneland and winger Raheem Sterling are amongst the best players in the world in their position, and at 27 and 26 years old respectively, the perfect bedrock on which younger players can rely. On the flip side, the most recent crop of young talent coming out of the English academies are taking world soccer by storm. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, 20 and 23, are both being chased by the biggest clubs in the world at fees reportedly over 90 million Euros. Trent Alexander-Arnold, 20, is arguably the world’s best right back, while Dean Henderson, 24, is one of the world’s best up-and-coming goalkeepers. In midfield, Jude Bellingham starts for Borussia Dortmund, one of the best clubs in Germany, at the tender age of 17. Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and alum Hudson-Odoi are the two of the best players in the English Premier League at 19, 20 and 20 years old. I’ll make the bold statement myself that anything less than a major tournament win should be considered a failure for this generation coming through.
So where has all of this success come from? There seem to me to be two main causes for England’s turnaround in fortunes. First, the focus on youth development and chances in the international team have been a primary focus amongst the Football Association’s staff. Despite his shortcomings, Hodgson did blend in a number of youngsters before being fired. Dele Alli, younger versions of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, the aforementioned Marcus Rashford and a number of other talents were given international debuts under the old boss, and this trend has continued under Southgate as well. Sancho, Bellingham, Henderson and many others like mercurial talents James Maddison and Jack Grealish have been given their chances since 2018; further young players like Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ollie Watkins have joined the squad in the last year. In the early half of the 2010s,the youth were largely ignored, with the nostalgia of the original golden generation carrying over beyond their expiration date. Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Terry and others were still mainstays well into their mid-30s. These days, however, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 28, a soccer player’s prime, on the field for England.
With another year and a half to mature, this young crop could do some real damage in 2022.The second cause for the English resurgence surrounds the foreign influence on this crop of players. The English are notoriously hard-headed in their openness to tactics, following many of the outdated methods of play. The early 2010s saw them play a very hard-to-watch longball style, full of crossing from players not suited to cross to players not suited to finish crosses. English players also mostly play their full careers in the English league under English managers with other English players, leaving little room for the injection of new ideas. But since 2016, this has begun to change. Big talents like Bellingham and Sancho have left English shores as teenagers to play in the German Bundesliga, while other key players have been able to work under revolutionary foreign managers that have come to the Premier League. Sterling, Foden and others playing for Manchester City have been able to work under arguably the world’s best manager, Spaniard Josep Guardiola, while Alexander-Arnold, midfielder Jordan Henderson and others play for German genius Jurgen Klopp. Other notable managers include the Argentine Mauricio Pocchetino’s spell at Tottenham, and German Thomas Tuchel’s reign at Chelsea. By being exposed to foreign tactics, training methods and attitudes, the English have diversified their portfolio of skills and tactical nous ahead of the World Cup in 2022.Whether or not they manage to win a trophy, the future is bright for the English national team. With budding young talent plentiful alongside plenty of experienced older players, an emphasis on playing the youth and foreign influence educating the talented players coming through, there seems to be very little room for further improvement in the talent production system. I expect big things from the English moving forward, and highly recommend watching in a few years’ time to witness them take the World Cup by storm.