SINGAPORE: England has not won a major international tournament since Queen Elizabeth II presented captain Bobby Moore the World Cup at Wembley Stadium in 1966.
But current captain Harry Kane is in with a chance of lifting his country’s second major prize into the London sky next summer - especially if certain issues can be fixed – as England hosts the final of the 2020 European Championships (Euro 2020).
AMONG BOOKIES’ FAVOURITES
Most bookmakers, in the United Kingdom at least, have England as the second favourites to be European champions behind 2018 World Cup winner France and above Belgium, number one in the world according to FIFA’s rankings.
Second-billing may be slightly optimistic but there is no doubt that England are in the mix. And the signs look encouraging.
While France won the World Cup in 2018, Kane returned from Russia with the Golden Boot, the prize awarded to the tournament’s top scorer. His six goals, helped England reach the semi-final.
More recently, he finished the Euro 2020 qualification campaign as top scorer with 12 goals.
The Tottenham Hotspur headliner is one of the most prolific strikers in the world but is just one weapon in England’s enviable attacking arsenal that scored 37 goals in eight qualification games.
Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, another of England’s attacking stars, contributed eight.
Many of England’s young players, such as Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, Ross Barkley of Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, form a strong offence.
In the penultimate qualifier, a 4-0 win in Kosovo, emerging Premier League stars Mason Mount and Harry Winks scored their first goals, as did Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham in England’s 7-0 win over Montenegro five days earlier.
All are playing for some of the best clubs in Europe and getting tested every week.
WHO’S THE BOSS?
The English media has at times in the past made playing for England miserable by building unreasonable expectations and then doling out vicious criticism when they were not met. It has been gentler and kinder on Southgate’s young team however.
England has had talented players before but the national team is a different beast these days.
The so-called “golden generation” that came together at the start of the previous decade was one such example.
This team included Manchester United favourites David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand, Liverpool legends Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and John Terry. Yet, they never truly delivered. Members have admitted that the fierce rivalries they enjoyed at club level resulted in national team cliques and reduced its effectiveness.
Southgate, who was appointed as head coach in November 2016 - shortly after the disaster of the European Championships in France when England exited at the second round after a humiliating loss to Iceland - has worked hard to create a solid team spirit.
The softly-spoken tactician has built a calm and mature atmosphere, treating the players as adults and there seems to be mutual respect.
That still seems to be the case despite a well-publicised event in November. In a top-of-the-table English Premier League game Liverpool’s Joe Gomez and Raheem Sterling of Manchester City clashed on the pitch as players do every weekend.
The next day however, there was an incident between the two after they reported for England duty.
Sterling was sent home by Southgate and missed the win over Montenegro. Southgate’s decision to punish the player has been met with mixed reaction.
On one hand, his decisive move earned him plaudits for managing the egos in his team.
On the other hand, sections of the British media went to town with a juicy story and a rare controversy for what is a likeable and popular England team that has generally stayed out of trouble compared to their predecessors.
While this incident is likely to be a blip, the English team face more pressing issues that may take longer to sort out.
England’s attack is world-class but its defence does not match up.
During the qualifying stages, England conceded six goals in eight games. Not bad at first glance, but when you consider the opponents they lost to, it becomes curious.
In September, it conceded three against Kosovo, and slumped to a 2-1 defeat to the Czech Republic in October.
Even during the recent thrashings of Montenegro and Kosovo, the backline still looked a little shaky.
"You have to be self-critical,” said former Ireland and Manchester United captain Roy Keane. “That’s just a lack of concentration. If you want to try and win these big tournaments, they’ve got to cut those mistakes out."
Steve Nicol, an ex-Scotland and Liverpool star, pointed out that while England's offence is fantastic, the team is just “defensively OK”.
It is not as if England does not have capable centre-backs. The defence is built around Manchester United’s Harry Maguire – the world’s most expensive defender.
Manchester City’s John Stones was always regarded as Maguire’s natural partner at the heart of the English defence. But the injury-plagued centre-back is a pale shadow of himself as his tumultuous time at City has stripped his confidence.
Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings was tried against Kosovo. But the lack of international game time showed.
That leaves Joe Gomez as a possible candidate. However, since he has only recently returned from injury, the player has not gotten much game time in a competitive Liverpool defence.
Although Southgate prefers fielding those who play regularly at club level, he may have to make an exception with Gomez to fix his defensive woes.
BIG TESTS AHEAD
There are few teams that have world-class players in all sections of their line-up and England have rarely, if ever, been so in the past.
England will need to shore up its defences over the coming months. Especially since the teams it meets in the tournament are going to be more potent than Montenegro and Kosovo.
Placed in Group D, England could potentially be pitted against France and Portugal in the first round of Euro 2020 next summer. The draw for the group stages will be held on Saturday (Nov 30).
England has often struggled in tournament situations against top-class teams when the pressure is on.
Since the 1982 World Cup, when it defeated a talented French team to reach the semi-final and become European champions in 1984, England have only defeated one genuine top team at the World cup - Argentina at the 2002 tournament.
Their record against top teams in the European Championships is similarly dismal.
To win the trophy next year, England will have to learn how to beat the best.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).