There are many reasons why England has underachieved at major international tournaments for the last half-century.
Unbalanced squads, out-of-form players, no tactical structure, bad luck or a lack of mental strength have all been listed as factors as to why the Three Lions haven’t won a World Cup since 1966.
When Gareth Southgate officially became England manager in 2016, it was seen as underwhelming. The other suggested candidates were either happy in their current roles or didn’t stoke confidence in the English FA, and Southgate’s hiring was met with little fanfare.
While Southgate has properly identified an ideal system since his appointment, and picked a squad to fit those tactics, not to mention implementing a few unique changes, he also owes some gratitude to the recent influx of marquee foreign coaches in the Premier League.
England’s projected lineup for this summer’s World Cup could feature up to seven starters from Tottenham and Manchester City. That is significant because most England teams haven’t predominantly featured players from one or two clubs. Usually a number of Premier League sides are represented in the starting XI.
However, it’s Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola who have their fingerprints all over this England side. All of Manchester City’s senior English players were called up. The same goes with Tottenham, apart from Harry Winks – who might’ve made the cut if not for his recent return from injury – and Kyle Walker-Peters.
Almost all of them could play a prominent role at the World Cup, too. Harry Kane is the captain and is the top English scorer in the Premier League. Raheem Sterling is coming off a career-best season with 18 goals and 11 assists for Manchester City. Dele Alli’s goals output may have declined this year, but he still managed 10 assists and performed brilliantly in the Champions League.
The coaching, especially the attention to detail, is what has led to more clutch performances from English players.
“I would be controlling [the ball] with the outside of my foot, slowing the ball down,” Sterling told ESPN. “[Guardiola’s] telling you to get to the left-back quicker, open your body out and take it with you instead of just controlling it and stopping… it gets the rhythm going again.”
Kyle Walker, who was also coached by Pochettino at Tottenham before joining Manchester City, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s [his] understanding of the game,” Walker said. “When to go forward, when not, when to keep the ball – I think we [Manchester City] do that fantastically well. We tire people out. We’ve scored so many late goals and crucial goals, because sooner or later they get mentally tired and that’s when we punish them.”
That mentality is now seen in more English players from Manchester City and Tottenham. There are still occasional blips, such as City’s elimination by Liverpool in the Champions League, but shattering Premier League records across a gruelling 38-game Premier League season is very impressive. It takes more mental resolve to dominate in England, what with the two domestic cups and European matches on the schedule.
Pochettino is a firm believer in having confidence in the English player. He thinks the fans and media should feel the same, which he believes isn’t always the case.
“We need to protect our assets,” said Pochettino, via The Independent. “For me the most important thing here in England is try to back English players, English talent, because he [Kane] is going to compete in international games or the World Cup or Euros and everyone wants to support the national team. And then if Harry Kane scores he is an England player not a Tottenham player or United or Chelsea. The most important thing is to back them.”
Given Kane’s injury issues towards the end of the Premier League campaign, there are fears of the England striker suffering through fatigue at the World Cup in Russia, like he did at Euro 2016. However, thanks to Pochettino’s fitness and nutrition regimes, that may not be the case.
Even Southgate himself praised the work of Guardiola and Pochettino and admitted that they’ve helped the national team.
This has the makings of a breakthrough World Cup for England, but not because they might make a deep run. The fact that the manager is sticking to a particular system and built a squad specifically for that formation is what’s been lacking for decades. National teams have little time together, so having set tactics and a consistent team of players builds cohesion and an understanding with one another.
Southgate may be the manager, but Pochettino and Guardiola deserve a tip of the hat for their contributions as well.