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Will a lack of leaders affect England at the World Cup?

Scott Newman
652   //    25 May 2018, 00:47 IST

2017 FIFA World Cup Qualifcation England v Slovenia Oct 5th
Tottenham striker Harry Kane has been confirmed as England's captain for their World Cup campaign

After the furore last week surrounding the announcement of Gareth Southgate’s England squad for next month’s 2018 World Cup in Russia, this week’s big announcement has largely flown under the radar. That announcement? The confirmation that Tottenham striker Harry Kane will be England’s official captain for the tournament.

Kane has captained his country on four occasions in the past, including during a key World Cup qualifier against Scotland, but as far as captains go, he’s not the most experienced. Not only is Kane set to be England’s youngest captain at any World Cup tournament, but he’s also not the permanent captain at his club – that job belongs to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

With England’s apparent “lack of leaders” usually brought up as one of the key reasons for their disastrous Euro 2016 campaign – particularly their second-round loss to Iceland – can the announcement of the inexperienced Kane as the captain for Russia 2018 be taken as another indicator that the Three Lions are sorely lacking in this area? It’s an idea worth exploring.

A lack of experience?

Firstly, it’s an interesting fact that amongst their 23-man squad, England only have two men who regularly play as captain for their club – Jordan Henderson of Liverpool and Gary Cahill of Chelsea. Coincidentally, that’s the same number of club captains that England took to Euro 2016. In that tournament, the two players were Henderson and third-choice goalkeeper Tom Heaton of Burnley, who unsurprisingly didn’t feature. The same fate could await Cahill, as the general consensus is that he’s probably going as a reserve player.

It’s easy to make a stark contrast to England’s more successful Euro 1996 squad and see the difference when it comes to leadership qualities. That side contained three regular club captains – Tony Adams of Arsenal, Stuart Pearce of Nottingham Forest, and Gareth Southgate, who had captained Crystal Palace before his move to Aston Villa. They also had David Platt, who had captained England on numerous occasions. All four men played a large role in England’s games during that tournament.

England v Spain - UEFA Euro 96 Quarter Final
Stuart Pearce was one of four players who had experience as a club captain in England's Euro 1996 squad

It’s also telling to look at the other players reportedly in contention for the captaincy alongside Kane – Henderson, Cahill and Eric Dier. The four men have 144 England caps between them, meaning they’re all relatively inexperienced in comparison to other captains in the tournament – Uruguay’s Diego Godin, for instance, has 115 caps; Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo 149, Spain’s Sergio Ramos 151 and Argentina’s Lionel Messi 123.

On the face of it, all of this appears to spell doom for England when it comes to leadership. They simply don’t have experienced leaders like the countries that they could face, and they have a history of going to pieces due to the same issue as recently as two years ago.

2014 FIFA World Cup
Uruguay's Diego Godin is a hugely experienced international captain

But honestly, does the role of captain really matter that much? And was a lack of leaders really to blame for the disaster that was the Iceland game? I’m not so sure.

Who was to blame for the Iceland debacle?

To explore the latter first, it’d be easy to jump to that conclusion. After all, once Iceland scored their fateful second goal, England’s players appeared to fall to pieces and nobody – from then-captain Wayne Rooney to the likes of Kane, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli – was able to take the game by the scruff of the neck as you’d have expected.

When you consider that Iceland’s goal came in just the 18th minute – meaning England essentially had 72 minutes to rescue the game – that becomes even more damning. But in reality, perhaps the loss had nothing to do with a lack of leadership on the pitch and more to do with a lack of leadership off the field.

Manager Roy Hodgson appeared baffled as England were dismantled by Iceland

Manager Roy Hodgson seemed confused as to what his best side and best gameplan was leading up to and then throughout the tournament, and the use of Rooney as a midfielder – a role he’d never played for England before – as well as the idea of putting Kane on corner duty – was always risky. With a boss unsure of exactly what he wanted his side to do, is it any surprise that England’s players appeared so baffled when the Iceland game began to go wrong?

Current boss Southgate, by contrast, appears to know exactly what he wants his players to do and he’s imposed that vision on them for some time now – he wants to see his side play the ball out from the back and attack at pace while retaining possession, largely using a three-man defence, a pair of wing-backs and a duo of holding midfielders.

He’s also already stated that – injuries notwithstanding – he knows exactly who’s going to start in England’s opening game against Tunisia on June 18th.

England Media Day - St George's Park
Gareth Southgate appears to have a concrete idea of how he wants his England side to play at the World Cup

While he has spoken about England’s lack of leadership in the past, it’s also something he’s worked to fix – swapping the captain’s armband around between Kane, Henderson, Cahill and Dier throughout qualifying and friendly games and encouraging all of his players to take more responsibility.

It’s a huge contrast to the Hodgson era in almost every possible way, save for the personnel being used.

How important is the captaincy anyway?

And what of the importance of the England captaincy? In reality, recent history suggests it might not matter that much, anyway. England went into the 2010 and 2014 tournaments with a hugely experienced club captain – Steven Gerrard – as their leader, and former captain John Terry also played in the former tournament. Both turned out to be absolute disasters.

In contrast though, England’s most impressive performances in a recent World Cup came in the 2002 edition in which David Beckham was captain. And of course, Beckham was never captain for Manchester United and he’d only captained England since late 2000 – less than a year and a half before the beginning of World Cup 2002.

0430 SPORTS Draw
David Beckham proved to be an inspirational England captain

Most fans would probably agree that Beckham was a fine England captain – and so too, for that matter, was striker Alan Shearer, another player who didn’t captain his club for the majority of his career. Both men led by example when it came to playing for England; naturally, the first thing to come to mind is Beckham’s superhuman performance against Greece in the final qualifier for the 2002 World Cup.

Could Kane do the same kind of thing? Evidence suggests he already has. A year ago, when England went 2-1 down against Scotland at Hampden Park in a key qualifier for the upcoming World Cup, it looked like Southgate’s side were going home empty-handed. But it was Kane who popped up to fire home an equaliser in the 3rd minute of stoppage time to rescue the game.

2017 World Cup 2018 Qualifier Scotland v England Jun 10th
Harry Kane rescued England in their qualifying match against Scotland in his first game as captain

This was, of course, an incredibly high-pressure situation, and the Tottenham striker delivered in spades – a huge contrast to the Iceland debacle a year prior.

Where is the leader, exactly?

Rather than suffering from a lack of leaders, then, it could be argued that England do have the leader they need for the tournament in Russia – but rather than being on the pitch, he’s sitting in the dugout, the man with the plan, Gareth Southgate himself. And on the pitch he has Harry Kane, willing to lead by example and follow Southgate’s gameplan to the letter.

As his captain, Kane seems willing to follow Southgate's instructions carefully

Whether this will prevent a panic-riddled display like the one against Iceland is still a question mark, of course, but recent evidence suggests – hopefully at least – that it should be unlikely.

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Scott Newman
UK based, big follower of football and MMA. Tottenham and England fan for life!
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