FORGET the Nations League. Remember the last two tournaments.
That is our message heading into England’s World Cup campaign.
Mind you, most English fans will have moved on already as the DNA programming is such that there is always positivity heading into a World Cup no matter what state the team is in.
And this time, Gareth Southgate’s side are in a very good state, even factoring in injuries.
In this preview, we’ll walk you through what we think the team should be and how England tend to play under Southgate – plus you’ll get our tournament prediction.
Predicted starting XI
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Southgate has plenty of talent – almost too many options who can do too many different things to make picking a side easy.
Injuries have suddenly helped Trent Alexander-Arnold book a place on the plane and we hope Southgate is bold enough to start him knowing that Kieran Trippier is an excellent option if a game needs to be closed out.
Kyle Walker, if fit, has to provide pace to cover the wide areas in the enforced absence of Reece James.
Harry Maguire, having been in the last two teams of the tournament is likely to be backed.
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Luke Shaw will start on the left and Kane, obviously, leads the line – but who plays around him?
Southgate will back Raheem Sterling all day and it’s hard to imagine Phil Foden not playing.
But of course, Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount are top options too.
Jude Bellingham will England’s breakout star though, alongside Declan Rice.
Many believe that for the group stage games Southgate should let the chains off a little and go with a back four.
Fixtures against Iran, USA and Wales will likely present England with the task of trying to break those sides down.
That could mean Walker switches to right-back and Trippier drops out.
Maguire and Stones would likely keep their places – although Eric Dier, Conor Coady and Ben White will be pushing Maguire all the way.
Shaw remains the obvious choice at left-back, with Bellingham and Rice in midfield.
But a three in the middle of the park could see Mason Mount enter the fold – another of Southgate’s most-trusted players.
And then up front the manager could decide to switch things around a bit with Foden swapping to the left and possibly James Maddison coming off the right.
Another possible line-up is another 3-4-3 but with a number of changes to the personnel.
Jordan Pickford, Stones, Rice and Kane are the only four who make it into each of SunSport’s three line-ups.
And for this last one we have dropped Maguire – who is coming under fire for his form and lack of minutes at Manchester United.
Dier and White are two of the best-placed defenders to replace the Red Devils captain thanks to their form so far this season.
Trippier is the only other recognisable left wingback option in the squad behind Shaw – and he played there at the Euros.
The visual below tells us that England are a patient, possession-orientated side and efficient in attack. The rank high for goals per match and xG per match – plus, touches in the opposition area.
But how does that actually look in the game?
England will likely stick to a back three and Declan Rice’s growing ability in the build-up phase helps them do this with confidence.
From this shape, Rice will sit deeper and allow the two wing backs to get higher – we can see this below, as he drops in closer to the back three allowing others to move wide and high.
Rice likes to drop deep – allowing the centre backs to spread out wide
We know Kane likes to drop into midfield where possible and with England usually playing two in the middle of the park, this allows him the space to do so.
It also creates various passing angles for the back three and wing backs to find him coming short early.
Below, we can see how he is the focal point as England build. He drops deep then switches it.
Kane drops deep and is the focal point to how England build their attacks
Also watch out for England using their attacking talent in wide areas to build-up. If the opposition are not pulled out of shape by this, if Southgate goes with the speedy options then they have the pace to get in behind.
We can see below how Sterling will come deep to create space for Shaw, play it into him before spinning in behind for Shaw’s return pass. These combinations are part of their patterns of play.
Sterling will like to come deep to create space for Shaw
With England ideally controlling the game through possession, they should spend less time in the defensive phase. Playing this way, they will likely face a lot of counters – so how do they stop that hurting them?
England’s ability to win the ball back high up the pitch is crucial to this – it tells us they press well. We know Southgate likes stability.
Southgate likes things to be tight. The midfield will be compact to protect the centre of the pitch and we will see a double pivot doing that.
We’ll also see one winger tuck in and the other winger and Kane try and stop the opposition getting out easily, like below.
Defensively, one winger tucks in and another pressures the opposition with Kane
England, as you can see below, keep compact where possible. The front three will be narrow pushing the play wide. The central midfield pivot will push forward to kill any space if the opponent does get out.
England’s front three play narrowly to push the play out wide
Declan Rice is crucial here – his ability to cover the ground quickly and break up play gives the midfield and the front three the freedom to press harder.
Should the opposition beat the press, like below, Rice can often get across and intercept.
If England’s press is beaten, Rice is often there to intercept
In attacking transition, England will often look to keep possession once they’ve won it back and be patient.
Sometimes, they will hit Kane early – especially if it is a selection that has the pace of Sterling and Saka around him.
Below, we can see a quick transition – England have the ball with two players looking to run in behind the German defence.
England will sometimes look for Kane early, if he has quick wingers around him
In the defensive transition, England counterpress well.
They use two simple structures to make this happen – firstly, if the ball is lost over a short distance the player nearest (normally he who gave it away) will go and win it back. If he can’t, he is at least trying to force a quick turnover.
However, England also sort their counterpress structure when in possession.
When in the final third, Southgate likes to have plenty of passing options near the ball – obviously that helps them keep it in tight spaces but also quickly pounce on the opposition if they lose it. You can see an example below.
Southgate likes England to have plenty of passing options around the ball
In attack, the narrative is mainly around “who is Harry’s understudy?” But there is a lot more to it than that.
If Southgate wants pace, he has to choose Sterling, Rashford, Saka and maybe even Sancho.
But, he also likes the less-speedy but more creative Foden, Mount and Grealish (sometimes) in wide areas. Sometimes you can have too many options.
England are strong in creative midfield options, if Southgate allows them to play.
It’s the one alongside Rice which has the question mark, though Bellingham has clearly gone a long way to removing that question mark in recent months.
Where does a resurgent Mason Mount fit in if Gareth continues to play 3-4-3? Does Jordan Henderson’s experience count enough for a starting spot?
Probably not – but if the right combination here is selected, England could springboard into something very interesting quickly.
Could the last man standing please turn out the lights?
England have gone from a narrative of trying to crowbar as many full-backs into a squad as possible to now not having enough fit ones.
Trent and Trippier are guaranteed places on the plane now as is Luke Shaw – yet the combination in the middle and whether Southgate goes three or four at the back is still up for debate.
Everyone knows that Harry Kane is one of the best in the business and that statement isn’t just Premier League hype.
He’s always been an elite provider but there is even more visibility of his creative side for club and country.
If he comes into the tournament fit and well then England have an ace in their pack – but a lot will depend on what is selected around him.
Don’t read too much into the poor UEFA National League campaign – England are still in the conversation about potential World Cup winners.
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that of the 2018 and Euro 2020 campaigns.
All eyes will be on Southgate of course and his style of play will always be a topic of conversation – and there will always be a player that everyone wants in the side that he will probably not accommodate (Maddison, Maddison or Maddison).
Anything less then the semi-finals would be a failure, but if Bellingham, Foden and even Trent come together and supply the bullets for Kane to fire anything could happen.
For even more detailed analysis of all 32 teams in the FIFA World Cup 2022, download your copy of the November Total Football Analysis magazine here