World Cup 2018: Lack of expectations and youthful exuberance fueling England's bright start
Being an England fan is hard work. Every four years, fans look at a team of supremely talented individuals who go to whichever part of the world the World Cup is being held and then you hope for glory only for hopes to be dashed again and again.
This dream always seems illogical if you factor in perennial favourites Brazil, the magical Messi-ah of Argentina, the Ronaldo One Man Army show, aka Portugal, the fluidity of the Spanish Armada and the assembly line of talent that is Germany.
Every single year ever since 1966, disappointment has reigned. But this year however, things are just starting to look different.
England have always had to deal with something different compared to many other World Cup teams. Boasting of the Premier League, the most competitive among the top 5 European leagues, and the most popularly watched league in the world, the national team of England have often been judged against this backdrop generating (at times unnecessary) hype, potentially unrealistic expectations, and to an extent, underwhelming performances by stars who play at a much higher level in the domestic league.
However there feels like there is a marked difference this 2018 World Cup in Russia for the Three Lions. England this year, are the third youngest team among the 32 teams playing in the finals this year.
They have World Cup debutantes across the board in all positions, a coach who is debuting in his own capacity.
One who has not been shy about implementing multiple changes across the board, not just tactically, but also making an effort to ensure that the players reach out to their fans by way of social media. But how is this different? For that we must look at the recent past of the Three Lions.
This team was a well-balanced team led by Sven-Goran Eriksson under whom England were expected to go far, but were ultimately bundled out on penalties by a Portugal squad containing Luis Figo and a young 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.
This team had a mixture of experienced players who were playing their final World Cups in Sol Campbell, David Beckham, David James, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand, along with potential wonder-kids, including a 17-year-old Theo Walcott, a 20 year-old Wayne Rooney, the explosive Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole.
Michael Owen was also in excellent form, having returned to Newcastle United from Real Madrid, and was joined in attack by Peter Crouch, a regular goalscorer for Liverpool at the time.
Despite all the pre-tournament hype from the infamous English media, a coach who had been working with them for a while, and a team that was very well balanced in terms of players and combinations, England barely made the Quarter finals past Ecuador, before losing on penalties to Portugal (keeping up with the English specialty of being unable to convert penalties, especially when it counted).
This match included the infamous wink Incident in which Wayne Rooney was sent off in their match against Portugal, thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s antics, which reduced many England fans to tears, including this writer.
Fabio Capello had taken over the English team, leaving out an aged David Beckham in a much-debated decision, choosing to appoint Steven Gerrard as the captain of the team.
Capello's tactical acumen was supported by a team underlined by experience, and proven class with Gerrard being paired with superstars Frank Lampard, John Terry, Jamie Carragher Wayne Rooney (then one of the best strikers in the European game), Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Ashley Cole (the best left back in the world at the time) and a young Joe Hart.
This team was in blistering form in the qualification stages, topping their qualification group, and scoring 34 goals to boot. This led to further hype in the media especially the British media about a potential Golden Generation.
This was magnified by the fact that 3 English teams had reached the final of the UEFA Champions League for three successive years in 2007, 2008 (both teams were English in the final, with Manchester United winning) and 2009. There was a notion that English club football was going through a period of dominance.
At the finals, England finished second in their group consisting of the United States of America, Algeria and Slovenia.
They barely made the knockouts of the tournament with 1 win and 2 draws, leading to an absolute thrashing at the hands of Germany in the round of 16.
Germany ran out 4-1 winners, the biggest defeat England has suffered in any World Cup game till date. There was widespread anger at losing to one of the national team’s biggest rivals and calls for introducing and blooding more English players into the Premier League.
Even with England going in the direction of having more experienced players, results were worse when compared to 2006.
The Three Lions' performance in Brazil was something almost every English fan has had to block out of their memories.
This was billed as the final go around for England’s supposed Golden Generation, receiving the usual hype as the team’s stars Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry played in their last World Cup. 2014 was also Wayne Rooney’s last, partnered in goal by Rickie Lambert and Daniel Sturridge.
A young Raheem Sterling was playing in his first World Cup. England finished rock bottom in their qualifying group, unable to make the Round of 16 from a group containing Uruguay, Italy, and Costa Rica (who finished top).
England’s dismal performance this time around was punctuated by scoring just two goals in in that World Cup.
2018 and beyond
In the next four years, leading up to the the World Cup in Russia, there have been noticeable changes in the England setup. A home-grown British manager in Gareth Southgate was appointed, after a failed experiment with Sam Allardyce.
He has looked unafraid to experiment with formations, try different tactics. Most of the members from the last World Cup have retired from the international game, leading to a new, very fresh crop of players stepping up.
Refreshingly, most of the players in this team are not household names, inexperienced in terms of the World Cup stage, but each and everyone hungry and look absolutely raring to go. Many were not even playing Premier League football when the World Cup was held in Brazil.
All three goalkeepers in the team are playing their first World Cup matches, including new England number 1 Jordan Pickford who has started both group stage matches. Tottenham Hotspur's breakout right back Kieran Trippier and 22 year-old Chelsea loan army member Ruben Loftus-Cheek - a silky passer who performed excellently while on loan at Crystal Palace.
There was also a place for 19 year old Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold who has already played in a Champions League final, but has played just once for England before the World Cup.
Harry Maguire who has become one of the Premier League’s best defenders with brilliant hard charging performances for Leicester City, was also included.
England's number 7 shirt this year will be worn by serial stunning goal-scorer (and quite possibly Manchester United‘s most surprising player this season) Jesse Lingard, who scored an absolute screamer of a solo goal against Panama in the 2nd Group stage match for England.
Before the World Cup Coach Southgate had talked of balance, and the squad was evened out by the inclusions of the experienced heads in Gary Cahill, Fabian Delph, Jordan Henderson, Phil Jones, Kyle Walker, Danny Welbeck and even the surprisingly youthful 32 year old Ashley Young who made a brilliant return into the national team fold after being out for nearly 5 years.
England are also looking forward to the services of the super pacey Jamie Vardy, another debutant looking to make his mark in his first and quite possibly last World Cup after surging into the England setup, thanks to excellent performances with Leicester City late in his career.
Southgate has shown a tendency to pick the best performing players, no matter their age or international experience.
Even the stars and best known players for the Three Lions this year are a marked departure from previous years . The one thing in common for all is that each have yet to reach the levels that the stars of World Cups past in the England team had been at.
Harry Kane, a proven goalscorer at club level with 41 goals to his name last season, is yet to reach superstar heights at international level. At the time of writing he leads the World Cup golden boot race with 5 goals, including a hat-trick versus Panama.
Marcus Rashford at just 20 will excite the imagination of all England fans after his absolutely stunning debut season. Dele Alli has claims to be one of the best English midfielders in the Premier League at the moment, and is raring to prove himself at the World Cup.
Even the defensive anchors of Eric Dier and John Stones have just started reaching their peak. But the best part for both management and fans is that none of them have looked remotely out of their depths in what is definitely the biggest stage in their young careers.
There is a very different feel about England this season. Gone are the tremendous weight of expectations, gone is the media pressure, and gone is the golden generation. There is a feeling that the English are underdogs.
This is far removed from the heady days of the Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard era. There is almost no pressure from either fans and media alike, fueled by a lack of expectations, and everyone from the English players to English fans are enjoying themselves.
They have demonstrated this freedom with their free flowing attacking football, already qualifying for the knockout rounds by comfortably dispatching Tunisia, and putting 6 past Panama, scoring the most goals in a match for an England squad at a World Cup, beating the record set by their illustrious counterparts - the World Cup winners of 1966.
There is a feel that this England team is in rebuild mode, with stars who can lead this team to years of success, maybe not immediately in the short term in Russia, but beyond. For fans this World Cup, we only look forward and ahead to what lies in store for these younger Lions.
After Brazil 2014, England had hit rock-bottom, and now the only way to go, at least if the opening two results of the World Cup are to be believed, is up.
England with lower expectations, and youthful exuberance may just be exorcising the ghosts of expectations from past World Cups.