It speaks volumes about the health of the England national team that during this international break so much time has been spent worrying about trivial matters.
A conversation about centre-back options when England have an established defensive setup that works perfectly; a debate over Trent Alexander-Arnold as England have three of the best right-backs in Europe; and question marks over midfield selection that focus on how to fit in so much talent.
England have never looked better, never been better prepared for a major tournament.
A semi-final appearance in 2018 and a final shootout defeat in 2021 already make this the best form spell in the country’s history, and scrolling through the list of names hoping to fly to Qatar, there has an argument to make that it’s England’s best team ever.
Granted, the ‘Golden Generation’ of the 2000s had more individual talent, and while younger readers are probably sick of hearing about it, the reason we keep talking about it is because it’s hard to believe how far England have come since those toxic days of tabloid vitriol and club rivalry.
Gareth Southgate’s side are happy, motivated and supportive. 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 if the good vibes are simply the product of frictionless tournament progress against weaker nations (and England benefited from very amiable draws under Southgate) should take note of how Harry Maguire and Jack Grealish performed in the 3-0 loss to Ivory Coast.
Both players endured difficult seasons at club level but both looked as confident as ever in an England shirt.
That’s the power of a united dressing room and an encouraging manager. The shirt is light. Playing for England is a breath of fresh air for the players, a chance to recharge their batteries.
Good vibes don’t win World Cups, but for all the hesitation over Southgate’s tactical acumen, he has shown a keen eye for the style best suited at international level – even if that means sacrificing some of his most attacking players. more talented.
Any discussion of England’s tactical preparations for Qatar must understand this central point.
Southgate has studied major tournament winners throughout the 21st century and correctly identified that international football is all about quiet control and compact, responsive football.
From the bare caution of Italy (2006) to the counterattack of Germany (2014) and France (2018), winning requires a relatively deep line of engagement, compressing space by sitting, then using transitions.
The pressing and possession football that is fashionable at club level (and therefore often demanded by supporters) requires a lot of time to coach structures.
One thing you don’t have internationally is time.
Therefore, no matter how badly you might want to see Trent Alexander-Arnold bombarding the wings and Grealish and Jadon Sancho sweeping opponents from either flank, Southgate will never embrace this type of football.
In fact, assessing what England want to do and where they need to improve only requires the analysis of one game: the Euro 2020 final.
England started in a conservative 3-4-3, happy to concede possession and calmly control the game from a central block that tentatively expected Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane to do all the attacking .
But as the game wore on, England began to sink deeper and play into themselves, losing their grip just as they had in the Cup semi-final defeat. of the world against Croatia. Even the switch to a more attacking 4-2-3-1 failed to regain momentum.
England’s World Cup will follow the same basic idea: 4-2-3-1 against the smaller nations and 3-4-3 against the larger ones, with the possibility of a change of formation in the event of a loss of control. When this is understood, many of the so-called problems disappear.
Kyle Walker is the first-choice right-back in the 4-2-3-1 as he develops a relationship with Maguire and John Stones that allows them all to move seamlessly when the back three come out.
Conversations around Conor Gallagher or Phil Foden become irrelevant when you consider that in the games that matter, England are settled on a midfield consisting of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.
That said, the midfield setup was the biggest development during the March international break.
Switzerland’s 2-1 win was ultimately controlled by England, but the first half was too open for Southgate’s liking, far too entertaining a game if England are to emulate their Euro 2020 record of two goals conceded in five knockout matches.
In short, starting Gallagher and Mount as an eight didn’t work, leaving a big gap in midfield which the Swiss used to counter.
Gallagher is brilliant at charging in midfield, but that’s not what is required. England were much better after Rice arrived, and Southgate will see this is the last time they experiment with the open a bit more.
However, Jude Bellingham’s superb and assured performance against the Ivory Coast is important.
What the Euro 2020 final defeat showed is that the only area England need to improve is how to fight control of a game that is slowly turning against them. In the imperious and extremely talented Bellingham, they have this player.
It doesn’t start often. But if England find themselves on the decline in a knockout tie and need a third central midfielder to grab the ball and push back, then Bellingham are undoubtedly the best option for England.
His elegance under pressure, his constant momentum and his strength of possession are exactly what we need.
That alone was worth learning this month. England have a stable camp, a few stable formations and a stable style of play – with the tournament record to back it up.
Any worries about who should play – any boos from worshipers who deserve better – have been fabricated simply because the nation is not used to this level of harmony.
The only valid concern is how to regain territory and calm down when the matches start to drift away from them. But, with Bellingham on board, there is now a solution even to that.
England are the third favorite to win the 2022 World Cup, behind France and Brazil. Judging by talent, experience and tactical strategy, even the bookmakers might slightly underestimate Southgate’s team.