Oh England. The home of the game. English football for better and worse has the self-image as inventors of the modern game. This has lead to a perception of superiority (leading them to not enter the World Cup until 1950), which has often come tumbling down on their heads. England and English clubs used to be very conservative in their tactics, and often they would be 10 years behind countries such as Italy, where you would often see a lot more experimentation.
6 years ago the English football national team still played 4-4-2. To some a system outdated 10 years prior (but then again Sweden still plays it today). However, with the massive influx of money in English league football over the last 15 years, foreign players and coaches have left their mark on the game’s homeland.
During qualification everything from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 to 3-4-2-1 was tried, and in preparatory friendlies for the World Cup the system was different variations of 3-5-2. This kind of tactical experimentation is not the traditional English style, and comes from hiring a younger coach in Gareth Southgate. One who played the last years of his career, when the English game was modernising. Therefore tactical flexibility to fit the 11 players on the field has been introduced.
English football is characterise by an insane pace. Players are often younger than in other leagues, and you run more at a greater speed. Everyone is expected to fight hard and work hard throughout the 90 minutes. But also fight fair. Fairplay is essential to the culture of English football. No diving, no cheating, no whining. Something Cristiano Ronaldo learned the hard way at Manchester United. Some players simply cannot hack playing the English game.
This game frustrates the opposition. English teams traditionally pressure their opponents for 90 minutes even if they are ahead. There is a significant amount of tactical thought in the English game, but often it is less evident than you might see in Italy, Spain, or Germany.
However, the idea of a perfectly fair game is not perfect. An English football idiom greatly explains their main national ball games: “Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen, football is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans”. The English will tell you a lot of romantic tales about their game, but in reality they well know the duality as well.
Where do the English play?
Every single England player plays in the English Premier League. It is the league with the most money, and the best players. For a time so much money that foreign talent meant some English players struggled to be starters for their club, even if they were starters for the national team. However, this is not the case anymore.
Goalkeepers are seen as potentially the English weakest link. All 3 of the play in midtier clubs (1 for each of Everton, Burnley, and now relegated Stoke), while the outfield players play in the top tier teams: Tottenham 5, Manchester City 4, Manchester United 4, Liverpool 2 (both playing in the Champions League final), Leicester 2, Chelsea 2, and Arsenal 1.
The benefit of all playing at home means the players know each other from playing against their national teammates. The problem might be that while they have played against a lot of their opposition in the League or in Europe, then the English players will often lack an understanding of how the game might be played in different countries. Especially as there is a certain arrogance to the English, as they tend to see the game as something that should be played, how they play it. (Except for Brazil, but everybody loves Brazil)
Political influence and national narrative
As inventors of the game, then everyone wants to beat England. And as a long history of a global empire and many wars, then they also have a load of rivalries. Especially with Germany and Argentina, but also France and well pretty much everyone else to some degree. Scotland is also a significant rivalry, but mostly these are other countries, see England as their rival more than England sees it as anything extraordinary.
For the English their main rivalry started by beating them in two World Wars, and it is with Germany. Where England was successful in war, then Germany beat them at their own game, leading to Germany being the most successful Europe footballing nation in history. There is a legendary story about the first time (West) Germany beat England, then the German captain commented that Germany had beaten the English at their own game, and to which the English captain is supposed to have replied: “yes, but we beat you at your own game. Twice”. Something very insulting for a post-war German, as their country should be associated with nothing but war.
The British might have beaten the Argentinians in the 1982 Falklands war, but 4 years later at the World Cup, Argentina knocked England out with Maradona’s infamous “hand of god” goal. And the war on the pitch has continued ever since. Each of these two instance being the ultimate insult to the other. England for being beaten at football by a unfair handball, and Argentina for losing a war over small random British South Atlantic islands, which a significant part of their national identity hinge on.
However, and in general, English see all of this as good fun. Some hooligans get overly drunk and rampage like it is the 100 Years War/Crusades all over again, and that has been a major problem in the past (for many hooligans the English scalp is the most coveted, as seen with Russian hooligans in 2016). But in general there is not much political to these rivalries, it is just a matter of identity definition. Which is also why in the English narrative then football is our modern day substitution for war in Europe. We kick a ball around instead of shooting each other. Both on the national and on the local level.
On the other hand, then you also have a resurgence of English nationalism these days. Brexit is around the corner. Something which will mean the British game stops being European in terms of foreigner players, and then Premier League clubs will likely have to use the same rules as Russia. This would drastically reduce the amount of EU nationals in the league, and decimate English football’s ability to compete for continental titles.
So while some hardcore football fans might be looking forward to a hard Brexit, then a softer one might be in their footballing interests.
Group and expectations
England are going to win the World Cup. Their perspective is that they invented the game, and therefore should be best. Anything short of the trophy is not good enough for the English.
England are in what looks like a fairly easy group. They struggled slightly against Tunesia, but they should be comfortable against Panama in the second round, and with Belgium playing Tunesia, then you by all accounts should have 6-6-0-0 point score after 2 games each. This will mean the final game between England and Belgium is merely a final for who wins the group, and both might field a significant amount of reserves, as they are both through.
But when England seem the most confident is often when things go horribly wrong. But then again this a younger and more modern English side in every way. And they must have learned their lesson from being humiliated by Iceland in the Euro 2016 round of 16. A lot has changed, and then maybe not so much. For the English fans this is going to be their World Cup in their own minds. For the rest of us, well, we always have doubts.