A little while ago, we sat down in London with Paddy Power ambassadors and former England internationals Paul Ince and Sol Campbell to discuss the current state of the Three Lions.
Between them, they won over 120 caps, so it’s fair to say they probably know what they’re talking about!
Here’s what they had to say.
This is probably the first tournament in many years into which England are going without any expectations. They’re building up a young squad, and have a manager in place who is trying to change things from a physical, mental and technical point of view.
There’s no pressure on them, except to get through the group. Having said that, with the players they’ve got – top-class players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli – I’d still see it as a failure if they didn’t get to the quarter-finals. They should be getting that far.
I hate to say it, but I can’t see them winning it. I don’t think they’re ready yet. But if they do get to the last eight, I’d see that as a bit of progress.
Over the past 18 months or so, the England forward-line has blossomed at their clubs. There are several forward players doing really well.
But when I look at the backline and the keeper – that is a real problem. A massive, massive problem.
Who does Southgate go with at the back? It’s not like playing up front, where you can score a few goals and feel like you’re buzzing. A defence, and the keeper, needs a little bit more consistency, a longer period playing together, in order to feel comfortable going into a major championship. You can’t just play a couple of games and feel, as a defender, ‘right, I’m ready for a World Cup.’
PI: We were blessed with goalkeepers in our era. Now, we’re looking and hoping for someone to stand out this season.
Joe Hart’s not really playing much this year, but I’d still take him because of his experience. He’s been at World Cups before. He knows what it’s all about.
People are talking about Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and young Nick Pope at Burnley. No-one’s really grabbing that number one shirt.
As for the backline, there are lots of questions to be answered. But when you look at that squad, the most important issue is the mental side of things. Going into a World Cup, it’s knockout football and you know you need to win your first game, especially since we play Belgium last in the group.
At the last World Cup, we froze. At the European Championship, we struggled. It’s all about how they can handle the mental challenges of the big stage.
SC: There’s another issue as well. On one-on-one zones, we’re not as strong as we used to be. When you look at our defenders on the domestic front, they have so many fantastic footballers alongside them, so it’s easier. Now, I feel playing for England is harder – you really have to control your zone now.
Still, going forward we look good.
PI: There are a lot of foreign players playing in the Premier League now, and the more that come in the harder it is for domestic players to thrive. All the PL cares about these days is bringing in the best players from abroad, in order to maximise the financial potential.
Meanwhile the FA have to think of ways to keep English players involved at the highest club level, but also developing grass-roots football and maintaining St George’s Park. The two sides are never truly going to see eye-to-eye.
So, we’re always going to struggle to bring through our own players. They need to be given chances. Harry Kane’s a prime example of that – no-one wanted him and he was packed off on loan, but now he’s one of the best strikers in the world.
Look at Chelsea, whose young players are all sent off on loan.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek had to go to Crystal Palace to get a game, but he has been outstanding in an England shirt. There are talented English kids out there, they’re just being blocked by the imports.
It’s also worth noting how much other international teams are improving. We used to hammer the ‘minnows’ by five or six goals to nil. That’s no longer the case, really. These teams are getting better every year, and the game is becoming ever more technical, which suits them.
I’m not saying we’re going to lose to Panama, but it must be said that the gap is narrower now.
SC: I’ve seen Panama play while I was with Trinidad & Tobago, and they actual play an English-style game. They also have some very good wingers, so they shouldn’t be written off. They’ll hold their own, and will need to be killed off with something special.
But, for me, when you look at youth systems in other countries like Germany or Italy, they don’t have very many foreign kids in there. If you go to some of the top clubs in the Premier League, their academies will be full of the best youths from around the world – so how is an English kid supposed to succeed in that environment?
When I started, the youth setups were mostly comprised of British footballers. Now, it’s a totally different ball-game.
PI: Something else that isn’t widely touched on is the amount of foreign managers involved. Naturally, they will also look to foreign players and foreign staff. This is beginning to spread from the Premier League into the Championship.
If you look at the few British managers working at the top club level, they favour British players – Sean Dyche at Burnley, Alan Pardew at West Brom. But the more it filters down the divisions, the problem is only going to worsen.