Can England bury the ghosts of 2021?

In the stands, scores of fans were shortchanged as thousands of ticketless fans breached the barriers.
Jude Bellingham is one of the players from England to look out for
Jude Bellingham is one of the players from England to look out for (Photo | AFP)

CHENNAI: July 11 2021, was supposed to be the day of days for England’s men’s football team. They were about to play their first senior final in 55 years; 90 minutes away from a promising generation kick-starting a new chapter. When that Sunday dawned, hope lingered in the air. With minutes to go for the final, the smell of marijuana (and various other drugs) filled the Wembley Way as feverish excitement took a grip over London (and throughout the country, really). When Luke Shaw put them in front, Wembley went out of control. Things very quickly descended into chaos after that.

In the stands, scores of fans were shortchanged as thousands of ticketless fans breached the barriers. On the field, an old but wily Italian team had begin their comeback. An equaliser was willed 23 minutes from time before they kept their nerves into the shootout to win the Euros. After full-time, three young footballers (Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford), all of whom had missed their penalties for England, were abused because of their skin colour. Eighteen months later in Qatar, a very similar team narrowly lost out to France in the quarterfinals.

Both those tournaments represented an outstanding chance for England to break a drought — their last title had come in 1966. Under a manager and a group of players who have largely reconnected with the fans and made them believe, 2024 offers another dance at the poisoned chalice.

This time, the task is harder because the defence has been ravaged by injuries. The starting left-back (Luke Shaw is half fit and won’t play for at least the first week), one of the centre-backs (Harry Maguire, whose England career has generally been decent) has been ruled out of the tournament. Couple that with the fact that there is no clear partner with Declan Rice in midfield — Jordan Henderson may have been that player but he was axed from the squad as Gareth Southgate moved on from players who oversaw the initial rise at the 2018 World Cup in Russia when they reached the semifinals.

England’s attacking ballast

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Sure, tournament football is all about having a solid ball-retaining midfield and an impenetrable defence. But where England are amply stocked is in a front four who will likely walk into most starting XIs. Between Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Saka, they have goal-scorers, creators, set-piece exponents and players capable of inter-changing positions and cooking opponents in multiple ways.

Out of the 24 teams in the Championship, no side can match the attacking output these four players have had this season in their respective league. Ninety goals and 31 assists. Considering all four have played together for England over the last two years, they will also be familiar with each other. What makes the quartet so tantalising is they all perform different functions. When you add them, they make a Premium plus version of a Swiss Army knife. Kane can drop deep and feed both Foden and Saka down both channels. Both Foden and Saka can engage defenders before cutting in while the latter can also go on the outside. Foden can also take up central positions. Bellingham’s job will be to knit all of this; there could be a potential issue as Foden and he may occupy the left half-space in the opponent’s half of the pitch in possession. If they can sort that out, they can have designs of having a deep run.

On opening night, Germany’s front three dazzled. If England’s front four put on a similar show against Serbia on Sunday night, they may yet have a fulfilling month in Germany.

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