England suffered the all-too familiar feeling of anguish at a major tournament, losing out to France in the quarter-finals of the 2022 World Cup. The Three Lions were beaten by France, who were the second favorites in the World Cup odds before the start of the tournament and who themselves reached the final for a second tournament in a row. So, there was no shame in defeat for Gareth Southgate and his men.
With England seemingly in the ascendancy, Harry Kane missed a decisive penalty that would have tied the game at 2-2 in the dying minutes. The usually-reliable marksman fired over the bar with his second effort of the game after converting his first penalty to bring the Three Lions level. Marcus Rashford almost bailed out his skipper, but placed his free-kick inches wide of the right post.
There should have been a pang of regret for Southgate and his team. Les Bleus did not play to their potential and still carved out a narrow win. For all the positivity surrounding England’s play, it is characteristic of them to lose out when under the brightest of spotlights.
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After taking a 1-0 lead in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, England failed to grasp the initiative against Croatia, suffering a 2-1 defeat after extra-time.
Southgate’s men performed extremely well in Euro 2020, surged through to the final and again took the lead against Italy. However, they were punished by Leonardo Bonucci’s equaliser and eventually lost out on penalties.
The recent defeat to France was a different story. The Three Lions were arguably the better side, but seriously lacking in nuance to ride out moments of the game when they were under pressure.
Southgate has now built up a record of winning only four out of a possible 24 matches against top-10 ranked sides in the world. For all the progress that England have made under Southgate, his inability to change big games and use the talent at his disposal has ultimately resulted in their failure.
This is despite having England’s best striker since Gary Lineker in the final third, Harry Kane, who has not only performed on the major stage more often than not, but has remained fit and potent unlike his many of his predecessors.
Kane will be 33 by the time the next World Cup comes around and, if the examples of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are anything to go by, he can surely play at least one more World Cup near the peak of his powers. But, England do have a problem once Kane declines. The squad has a lack of a central strikers emerging in the ranks.
Germany and Spain have endured this glaring issue, which has prevented both teams from competing in the latter stages of the World Cup. Spain have played the tiki-taka football that has earned them a great deal of praise, but has lacked the substance it did between 2008 and 2012 when they ruled the world. David Villa and Fernando Torres were the true unsung heroes of those Spanish teams that won the World Cup, along with two European Championships.
Germany have sorely missed the presence of a striker like Miroslav Klose at the World Cup, resulting in back-to-back exits at the Group Stage. Kai Havertz is developing slowly, but even he is more a support player in the mould of Thomas Muller rather than an out-and-out striker like Klose. Germany’s options were so depleted that they had to call Niclas Füllkrug into the squad, who had no international experience before the start of the campaign. He performed well but, at the age of 29, he is not a long-term solution to their problems.
England cannot afford to experience the same issue. Although pundits will point to the very bright futures of Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka among others, there is no direct replacement for Kane on the horizon. Foden, Saka, Rashford, Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Jadon Sancho all fall under the jurisdiction of attackers rather than central strikers. The Three Lions appear to be walking into the same trap as Spain and Germany.
A solution is required to prevent England enduring the same issues that Germany and Spain have experienced at major tournaments of late.
How Can England Avoid The Issue?
Kane is one of a kind in world football at the moment, excelling in the number nine role by both scoring and assisting goals in the final third. England do need to find a way to ease the burden on their captain, and perhaps alleviating Kane from the armband will allow Southgate to remove him from the field at times to prolong his international career. England do not want a situation akin to Alan Shearer, who opted to retire from international football two years before his time.
Developing options behind Kane is also key. Callum Wilson was Kane’s backup in Qatar, but he is older than his team-mate and, despite his impressive form for Newcastle United, has been plagued by injury problems. Ivan Toney has endured some off the field issues that could linger and prevent him rising to the occasion. At the age of 26, Toney seems to be the logical choice to act as Kane’s relief for the next four years.
Beyond that, the options are slim for young players developing into superstars, although Kane did himself appear out of nowhere for Tottenham in 2014 after doing the rounds on loan in the lower tiers. Toney also had to drop down the tiers to find regular action and is now one of the best forwards in the Premier League.
After seeing his growth at Manchester United stunted by Cristiano Ronaldo, there is chance that Rashford can develop through the middle. Rashford now has the chance to push for a starting role in the middle following the Portuguese’s release. Folarin Balogun is a name to monitor if he continues his impressive form in Ligue 1 in Reims, especially if he can return to Arsenal to light up the Premier League in the near future.
It will also be up to the England attackers to display a clinical edge in front of goal. Saka showed that he will be a thorn in the side of teams for a number of years, while Rashford was extremely impressive against Wales in England’s 3-0 win. Foden needs to take the step forward to produce the usual levels of efficiency he shows at Manchester City for England.
If that occurs, the burden on Kane will be eased and the Three Lions perhaps avoid the fate of other sides that have lost the presence of a number nine.