It may not be the World Cup or the Euros, but there is an international tournament coming up - one that has a trophy at the end of it, and one that England fans aren’t going into with an overcoming sense of dread.
For the first time in a fair while, England’s hopes going into a (major?) tournament are quite high. On paper, they are arguably the strongest side there. And in terms of form, the World Cup semi-finalists are flying.
After a World Cup that exceeded all expectations, Gareth Southgate has fired his men to a higher level.
The tournament saw Southgate deploy a functional 3-5-2, one designed to get the most out of his players in the time he had to prepare for the tournament. It worked a treat, and got England through to the semi-finals, where they were beaten by Croatia’s ultimately more talented midfield.
The 3-5-2 persisted into the first game of the Nations League against Spain, in which England looked comfortably second best to a Spanish side trying to shaking off their disaster of a World Cup.
Then to Croatia behind closed doors, where the next phase of England’s development was implemented by Southgate - the development from functional to something that does more than just get by.
Southgate lined England up in a 4-3-3, the now seemingly go-to formation for any team looking to be a ‘top side’. An empty stadium in rural Croatia, however, seemed to suck any life out of the game. In a drab 0-0 draw of few chances, the biggest highlight was Jordan Henderson’s vocal chords. His Geordie bellows provided far more entertainment than the match itself.
Then came the second round of fixtures, and England began to show off their potential. An Eric Dier slide tackle inspired one the finest halves of football in recent memory for the Three Lions, as they blew Spain away in Seville.
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Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are, on paper, a fantastic and fearsome front three. Historically, England’s on paper sides have never quite hit their supposed heights when on the pitch, but this trio managed to blow away those skeletons in England’s very large closet.
A second-half scare was survived, and England went back to Wembley with a chance of securing a place in the Nations League semi final after Spain again fell 3-2, this time to a last gasp winner from Croatia.
Here, it became clear that, as begrudging as it is to admit, UEFA had come up with a decent idea. The Nations League had turned turgid friendly season into something exciting. And with three team groups, a final match which could see any of England, Croatia or Spain go through.
Harry Kane slid to grab the winner against Croatia after a second-half set back for the Three Lions, and there was some vengeance had after the World Cup. ‘Some’ being the operative word. As pleasant a feeling as it was, nothing can really come close to a World Cup semi final in terms of scale.
So England booked their place for the finals, and were drawn against the Netherlands. Those in orange have seen a brilliant turnaround in fortunes of late. A dismal few years of tournament no-shows now has some light at the end of the tunnel.
The Netherlands are endowed with some high-quality players in the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Memphis Depay. Then there are the youngsters coming through such as Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, showcased so brilliantly in that wonderful Ajax side.
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A 2-1 defeat to France in their opening Nations League game was rectified by a 2-0 victory in the reverse fixture as well as a superb 3-0 dismantling of Germany. And who didn’t enjoy the surprising return of Ryan Babel to the scene?
They will be a tough test for this England side. Gareth Southgate will be hoping some of his key players have not been affected by injury and/or the close proximity of the Champions League final.
Harry Kane appeared to be match fit, but that is something different to being match sharp. The England captain will, still, surely be one of the first names on the team sheet though.
Jordan Henderson, too, is likely to be a starter for Southgate after his excellent performances in a more advanced ‘no.8’ shuttling role for Liverpool. This may pave the way for Declan Rice to start making a permanent bid for the role of deep midfielder.
Whatever the case, this is a fine looking England side getting set to take on a resurgent Netherlands, who have plenty of talent of their own. The Three Lions are the bookies' favourites for the clash, but this Netherlands side will prove a very stern test.
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