Key analysis: Is the World Cup finally coming home for England?

Key analysis: Is the World Cup finally coming home for England?
Key analysis: Is the World Cup finally coming home for England?
Key analysis: Is the World Cup finally coming home for England?
England are one of eight countries to have lifted the World Cup, but their maiden triumph in 1966 remains their last.


Since that famous extra-time win over West Germany in '66, England's best two finishes were fourth - in Italy 1990 and Russia 2018 - with results and performances in between marked by bitter disappointment.

Despite naming squads regularly featuring big-name players, the Three Lions have found a way to capitulate when it mattered most; whether against weaker opposition, penalty shootouts or controversial refereeing decisions, their fans have seen it all.

England scored 39 goals in qualifying for this World Cup – more than any other team across Europe – but 24 of these came against minnows San Marino and Andorra.

They needed a late Harry Maguire goal to see off Poland 2-1 at Wembley in March 2021, and despite their 4-0 win over Hungary at the Puskas Arena last September, back-to-back 1-1 draws against Poland away and Hungary at home raised serious doubts over the ability of the squad.

Although they reached the final of Euro 2020 last summer, eventually losing on penalties to Italy, England’s form leading into Qatar is a cause for concern. They have not won in their last six and were relegated from the Nations League after failing to win any of their six matches against Germany, Italy and Hungary.


England boast an embarrassment of riches up front enabling manager Gareth Southgate to select various attacking options throughout the tournament.

Although captain Harry Kane remains England’s nailed-on central striker, who partners him up front will cause debates long into the wintery night with Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford all vying for starting spots.

Jude Bellingham is an outstanding talent set to spark life into an attacking midfield and will surely start, but there's questions over whether Callum Wilson or James Maddison – both of whom made the squad for Qatar based on their terrific form for Newcastle and Leicester respectively – will get any time on the same pitch.

Southgate remains loyal to the players who led England to the final of Euro 2020 with 19 of the 26-man squad retained for the World Cup. At 76 per cent, this retention rate is the highest of any England side between major tournaments in history.

Consistency and experience will be crucial factors as the World Cup progresses.


Undeniably the biggest concern for England is in central defence.

Harry Maguire’s form has plummeted at Manchester United this season with the 29-year-old starting only one Premier League game under Ten Hag since their 2-1 defeat to Brighton and 4-0 loss to Brentford in their opening two matches of the season.

In effect, Maguire is now the Reds’ fourth-choice centre-back but Southgate continues to select him based on previous performances – notably at the World Cup in 2018 and Euro 2020 – coupled with a lack of world-class alternatives in his position.

Chelsea full-backs Reece James and Ben Chilwell were both ruled out of contention through injury, but there was some surprise AC Milan defender Fikayo Tomori was excluded from the squad entirely.

The 24-year-old was an ever-present in Milan's Serie A title win last season, but as the England manager explained bluntly: "We don’t think the young ones have done quite enough to push the older ones out."

Although Southgate selected nine defenders for the World Cup, it appears unlikely Ben White or Conor Coady will break into the monopoly of a Harry Maguire-John Stones-Kyle Walker partnership in Qatar.

Only time will tell how long that will last.

Highlights from England's first open training session in Qatar at the Al Wakrah Sports Complex.

Ideal XI

Jordan Pickford - Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire - Kieran Trippier, Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice, Luke Shaw - Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane

Arguably the least-debated position is in goal with Jordan Pickford once again set to be selected as England’s number one despite Everton's poor form, with the 28-year-old playing every game at the 2018 World Cup and 2020 European Championship.

There will be no surprise to see Harry Maguire – England’s highest-scoring defender with seven goals – partner Kyle Walker and John Stones at the back given Southgate’s preference to select the trio.

Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse will be disappointed to miss out on selection after making recent squads, especially given Kalvin Phillips was picked but faces a race to be fit for the start of the tournament.

Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham is one of the most promising young talents in Qatar and will be expected to line-up alongside Declan Rice. The duo played together at Euro 2020 and will look to reprise their display with Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier on the wings.

Captain Harry Kane needs three more goals to surpass Wayne Rooney’s all-time England goal-scoring record of 53, and with Iran, USA and Wales in their group, it will be a bold move if anyone bets against this happening in Qatar. The 29-year-old won the Golden Ball at the last World Cup, but hasn’t scored from open play since netting against San Marino in September 2021.

Despite a recent dip in form for Chelsea, Raheem Sterling should be given the nod to start for the Three Lions given his wealth of international experience - it will be his third World Cup for England - and they will be joined by Phil Foden who has enjoyed a terrific campaign for Manchester City so far.

Hottest contest

Who will start in midfield for England?

Gareth Southgate selected six midfielders for Qatar with Jordan Henderson set to join Sterling and an illustrious group of England players who have competed at three World Cup finals.

Although not a starter, Henderson's experience at two finals and two European Championships under four England managers will prove invaluable to the younger generation of players who are charting the choppy World Cup seas for the first time.

Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher won the U-17 World Cup with England in 2017 alongside Phil Foden, who was named player of the tournament, but it will be unlikely if Gallagher starts, or indeed plays, any minutes in Qatar.

Capped four times, the box-to-box midfielder only made his debut last November and will be consigned to the bench with Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice above him in the Three Lions’ pecking order.

Mason Mount has been one of England’s most consistent performers since he made his debut against Bulgaria in September 2019 and will be pushing for a starting berth, but his form has dipped as Chelsea’s season wobbles under Graham Potter.

That leaves injury-prone Kalvin Phillips who was selected despite not being a regular for Manchester City or indeed 100 per cent fit to start.

The 26-year-old, who moved from Leeds United in the summer, was England’s player of the year for 2020-21 and started every game at Euro 2020, but it's an almighty gamble for him to get up to speed and performing at the top level so soon.

It’s a risk Southgate clearly believes is worth taking.


England should comfortably top Group B but it gets tricky in the knockouts. A likely last 16 tie against Senegal or Netherlands awaits Gareth Southgate’s team before a probable quarter-final showdown against France or Argentina.

There's no hiding that England are poor defensively and to beat teams in the latter stages who boast the world’s best strikers might be wishful thinking.

However there is a growing anticipation that if they were to solve their defensive frailties, this England side could go all the way.