It all started as a joke.
Disappointed and disillusioned following their team’s chronic lack of success on the international stage, the England supporters had little faith in Gareth Southgate’s team and the ‘It’s Coming Home’ shout was their way to fight the disappointment that was expected to ensue.
Successive wins over Tunisia and Panama sparked a newfound hope and the catchphrase from the Lightning Seeds hit song “Three Lions” slowly started shaping into a genuine possibility as England stands in front of it’s first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
The Three Lions have struggled to go past the quarter-finals ever since Italy and all the supporters initially wanted to do was to be lighthearted about another probable disappointment in Russia.
Gareth Southgate had different ideas, however. Never truly given managerial recognition and the credit he obviously deserves, the former England international is doing wonders with a young and exciting side.
There are a couple of parallels to be drawn between the Velvet Revolution from Czechoslovakia in 1989 and the unobtrusive manner with which Gareth Southgate led his England side back to global prominence.
The waistcoat-wearing tactician reshaped the way England defend and go forward, their off-ball movement and – most importantly – he instilled a winning mentality the Three Lions lacked in the past.
England’s quarter-final success against Sweden might have been all about Jordans – and Harry Maguire’s masculine maturity – but as England stands in front of it’s biggest challenge yet in the tournament, it is to be argued that Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard hold the key to the final.
Five matches into the World Cup, the Manchester-based duo boasts numbers that do not give proper justice to their influence and overall impact on England’s play.
Twelve’s elaborate algorithmic calculations have rewarded Jesse Lingard with a total of 5,963 points – which puts him in fourth place on the general England World Cup leaderboard. Strongly criticised Raheem Sterling sits in tenth, with 3,307 points, yet there is a striking discrepancy underlying such numbers.
As England prepares to lock horns with one of the most talented midfields around – in the shape of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric – Gareth Southgate faces a strong dilemma as per the tactical approach he should deploy.
His 3-5-2 system brings plenty of fluidity and potential, seamlessly transforming itself into a 3-2-1-3-1 formation where three attacking midfielders – two of which will most likely again be Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard – have a crucial role to play.
The attacking nature of the English side could end up leaving Jordan Henderson too exposed and forced to chase down Modric and Rakitic on his own, which immediately puts Jesse Lingard under the spotlight.
Manchester United’s attacking midfielder has undergone a transformation that made him a crucial cog in the English machine, making him a more defensive-minded asset that turned out to be of great value in the 2-0 win over Sweden.
Lingard finished the match as the third-placed English footballer in the overall Twelve rankings, whereas it was his defensive work rate that make him stand out above the rest. Pulled back into a more central midfield role to support Jordan Henderson, he made six ball recoveries that helped him amass 474 points defence-wise.
A Sterling’s Worth
A case study would be in order to defend Raheem Sterling against the relentless public criticism which went as far as to announce the Manchester City star as England’s worst player against Sweden.
A look at Twelve’s numbers would seemingly offer enough arguments to support such a claim, knowing that Sterling was 11th-best player of fourteen involved in the match. As an attacking midfielder supporting Harry Kane upfront, Raheem Sterling’s lack of goals at the tournament hides the true nature of his play, however.
But 200 hundred points in the attacking department against Sweden – with a particular focus on the (seemingly) unimportant actions Sterling was involved in – underlines his true value in Southgate’s formation and style.
Had it not been for Robin Olsen’s brilliant save on a rare occasion that Sterling managed to get in behind Sweden’s tightly-packed defence line, a 1,000 points-worth goal would have pushed him further up the leaderboard to the first place, well above Ashley Young who topped the chart with 1,008 attacking points in the quarter-final.
Raheem Sterling has become Gareth Southgate’s silent leader, whose selflessness paints a commendable persona hidden behind the much-disputed rifle tattoo and whatever senseless arguments the British media might find to throw in attempts to taint his image.
His ability to find little pockets of space he then exploits with lightning speed or the courage to take on defenders in the attempt to smuggle the ball forward – or pass it to a teammate – along with impressive work rate and off-ball movement make him a player who deserves full recognition.
And such a wide repertoire is exactly what Gareth Southgate needs against a team as strong as Croatia.