Updated: Jun 13, 2018
Getting excited about England is pretty much Charley Brown getting suckered again by Lucy, though every year so many Yanks drinking from the Premier League star-making machinery behind the popular BPL find that we can't quit him. It's the damn accents, the great announcers, the serenading crowds, and the biggest money machine in sports. After a few deflationary Cups, most Englishmen and women over 24 adopt the cynical veneer that they're just not that good or they'll find a way to screw it up in any case, but American anglophiles tend to think this time will be special. It probably won't be. As my English pal Nigel says (more or less), "Put a Liverpool or Man United jersey on them and they're world-beaters; pull on the 3 Lions and all competence and confidence drains away."
England's got 3 things going for them, and 2 very dubious ones.
1) They aren't beholden to any past-prime legends that they just can't pry themselves away from. Beckham in 2006; Gerrard and Rooney in 2014--these were just horrible ways to sunset, sort of like watching Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 18. They aren't having to cater to any sacred cows.
2) The Tottenham connection brings a coherence that hasn't been there in years. Trippier, Walker, Rose, Dier, Alli and Kane have all played in Pochettino's highly cohesive system and will bring purpose and coherence.
3) I don't know if they can defend, but the Lingard/Alli axis that they've been using in behind Kane is a handful. Lingard's a great player, excellent timing, creative, a strong finisher and quick enough to cause problems. Alli can be hit or miss but can both create and finish (by air or land), and of course Kane brings a great nose for the goal but also hold up play and is unflappable. There's some genuine chemistry there. Alli of course can make some bonehead decisions, and Sterling probably has the widest oscillations, extremely difficult to contain when he gets isolated on the flank but capable botching the easiest of finishes. I suspect we will appreciate anew how good DeBruyne and Silva are when we see Sterling without them, but he's turned the opposition inside out this year. Rashford and Vardy off the bench...well, remember back in 2010 when they STARTED Emile Heskey? You can see why there's some excitement about the attack. I'll add that Rashford (whose goal below on the video is a stunner) will be eager to show that he--like many others--isn't the problem at Man United, but is rather just one more excuse that Jose Mourinho uses for his own failures. I only know of one person with a greater lack of accountability than Mourinho, and I only talk about him on a different page.
What's not to like:
1) Yeah, whoever is at the center of the defense should make anyone nervous. The mention of Phil Jones makes me wobbly, even if he'd throw his head in front of your boot to stop a goal, the footballing equivalent of "It's only a flesh wound." If he makes it on the pitch, I suspect him to leave looking like he's being carted off from a Verdun trenchworks. His opposite is the elegant John Stones, who imperiously glides across the Etihad and looks to have waltzed right out of a modeling catalogue, every hair in place and cardigan draped across his shoulders. He's the guy who's got it all--touch, size, poise, wallet--and somehow something easy always seems to go wrong. The grizzled Gary Cahill will battle, Harry Maguire's a tough kid (but no Tobey Maguire) and if things go poorly we could end up with Ashley Young on one flank. This all gives me a very sinking feeling. Pickford seems a bright light in goal--but then the Cup has a way of deflating every post-Gordon Banks England #1 (see Seaman, David, courtesy of Ronaldinho, or Robert Green's howler against the USA). Jordan Henderson is a tireless worker with a pretty good hammer offensively. Of all the central defenders, only Eric Dier seems possibly good enough to play for a top flight team, but then when I think about which one, maybe that's not even true, and I suspect he'll be shoring up the midfield.
2) It's hard not to imagine all the old doubts creeping in once they run into trouble. Part of me thinks that the successes of Liverpool, City, and Tottenham have us with a confident, unscarred bunch, and Gareth Southgate seems to have a much more natural touch with this generation than previous gaffers. But the defensive weaknesses just seem too great to sustain any real belief. They just aren't good enough at the back, and that will bring an armada of psychic pressure on the attackers.
I will add a 3rd actually: the odds of some really ugly anti-English thing going down in Russia seems almost preordained. It's gotten very bad at the diplomatic level, and Russian hooligans swarmed the English in a pretty terrifying manner in Marseille 2 years ago. While the Russian police probably could stop the hooligans--I'm not sure on this matter--I don't know if they will, entirely. THere's been some violence at every World Cup, as Putin will surely remind us. Racist chanting in the stadium or out in the streets...I hope I'm wrong. But I'm not optimistic. But it's a cloud that may well envelop them. Danny Rose isn't bringing his family, and I don't blame him one bit.
Still, I imagine those of us raised on the BPL and its English stars will find ourselves sucked in, inevitably, maybe get to a British pub where we'll quickly find that sour cynicism that post-1966 Englanders have indelibly tattooed as a rite of passage, a sign of boyhood dreams abandoned. It ain't a Charley Brown nation when it comes to its national side.