England's best-ever squad? Why Southgate's settled side can win the 2022 World Cup

Harry Kane England Switzerland 2022
With the addition of the supremely talented Jude Bellingham, the Three Lions now possess an even deeper pool of players than they had at Euro 2020

It speaks volumes about the health of the England national team that during this international break so much time has been spent fretting over trivial matters. 

A conversation about centre-back options when England have a settled defensive setup performing perfectly well; a debate over Trent Alexander-Arnold when England possess three of the best right-backs in Europe; and question marks over the midfield selection that centre on how to fit in so much talent. 

England have never looked so good, have never been so prepared for a major tournament.

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A semi-final appearance in 2018 and a final shootout defeat in 2021 already makes this the best period of form in the nation’s history, and scrolling through the list of names hoping to make the plane to Qatar, there is an argument to be made that this is the best-ever England squad.

Granted, the ‘Golden Generation’ of the 2000s had more individual talent, and although younger readers are probably sick of hearing about that lot, the reason we keep banging on about it is because it’s hard to believe how far England have come since those toxic days of tabloid vitriol and inter-club rivalry. 

Gareth Southgate’s camp is happy, motivated, and together. They are even cultural ambassadors, a progressive group of young men who have brought a sense of national pride to the England football team. That, alone, is an incredible achievement.

Anyone wondering whether the good vibes are simply a product of frictionless tournament progress against weaker nations (and England have enjoyed very kind draws under Southgate) should take note of how Harry Maguire and Jack Grealish performed in the 3-0 defeat of Ivory Coast.

Both players have endured difficult seasons at club level, but both looked as self-assured as ever in an England shirt.

That is the power of a united dressing room and an encouraging manager. The shirt hangs light. Playing for England is a breath of fresh air for the players, a chance to restore themselves.

England Ukraine 2022 GFX

Good vibes don’t win World Cups, but for all the hand-wringing over Southgate’s tactical acumen he has shown a keen eye for the style best suited to international level – even though that means sacrificing some of his more talented attacking players.

All debates around England’s tactical preparations for Qatar must understand that central point.

Southgate has studied the winners of major tournaments throughout the 21st century and correctly identified that international football is all about quiet control and compact, reactive football.

From the naked caution of Italy (2006) to the counterattacking Germany (2014) and France (2018), winning requires a relatively deep line of engagement, compressing space by sitting off, and then making use of the transitions. 

The hard pressing and possession football fashionable at club level (and therefore often demanded by supporters) requires lots of time to coach the structures.

One thing you don’t have at international level is time.

Consequently, no matter how much you might want to see Trent Alexander-Arnold bombing down the wings and Grealish and Jadon Sancho sweeping through opponents from either flank, Southgate will never embrace this kind of football.

In fact, assessing what England want to do and where they need to improve only requires analysis of one game: the Euro 2020 final.

Gareth Southgate Jadon Sancho England Italy Euro 2020 GFX

England began in a conservative 3-4-3, happy to concede possession and to control the match calmly from within a midblock that tentatively expected Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling, and Harry Kane to do all the attacking. 

But as the match wore on, England began to fall deeper and play within themselves, losing their grip just as they did in the World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia. Even switching to a more attacking 4-2-3-1 could not swing the momentum back.

England’s World Cup will follow the same basic idea: 4-2-3-1 against the smaller nations and 3-4-3 against the bigger, with the option of a formation switch should they lose control. When that is understood, many of the so-called problems disappear.

Kyle Walker is the first-choice right-back in the 4-2-3-1 because he develops a relationship with Maguire and John Stones that allows them all to shuffle across seamlessly when the back three comes out. 

Conversations around Conor Gallagher or Phil Foden become irrelevant when considering that in the games that matter England are settled on a midfield two of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.

Having said that, the midfield configuration has been the biggest development over the March international break.

The 2-1 victory Switzerland was ultimately controlled by England but the first half was too open for Southgate’s liking, a game far too entertaining if England are to emulate their Euro 2020 record of two goals conceded in five knockout matches.

In short, starting Gallagher and Mount as eights did not work, leaving a large midfield gap that the Swiss used to counter.

Conor Gallagher England Ivory Coast 2022 GFX

Gallagher is brilliant at charging around midfield but that is not what is required. England were much better after Rice came on, and Southgate will see that as the last time he experiments with opening up a bit more.

However, Jude Bellingham’s superb and assured display against Ivory Coast is important.

What the Euro 2020 final defeat showed was that the one area England need to improve is how to wrestle control of a game that is slowly turning against them. In the imperious, supremely talented Bellingham, they have that player.

He won’t start often. But should England find themselves waning in a knockout game and in need of a third central midfielder to grab the ball and push back, then Bellingham is undoubtedly England’s best option.

His elegance under pressure, constant forward momentum, and strength in possession is exactly what is needed.

That, alone, was worth learning this month. England have a settled camp, a settled couple of formations, and a settled playing style – with the tournament record to back it up.

Any concerns over who should play – any booing of stalwarts who deserve better – have been manufactured simply because the nation isn’t used to this level of harmony.

The only valid concern is how to regain territory and composure when matches start drifting away from them. But, with Bellingham on board, there is now a solution even to this. 

England are third favourites to win the 2022 World Cup, behind France and Brazil. Judging by the talent, the experience, and the tactical strategy, even the bookies might be slightly underestimating Southgate’s team.