It may only have been three years ago, but looking back on the summer of 2018 now is like reminiscing about a bygone epoch of carefree abandon and technicolor joy.
Rarely has this divided little island felt so unified, giddy as it was on an impossible dream, spurred on by inflatable unicorn pool toys and orchestrated by a nice man in a waistcoat.
Fast forward to 2021, however, and things feel a little more complex. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this young, enterprising England side, but there are also a couple of issues that continue to loom large in the background.
For one thing, that run to the semi-finals in 2018 may well have cast a rod for Gareth Southgate’s back. Anything less this time around will likely be dismissed as a regression, even if his side’s draw is decidedly more devilish than it was in Russia.
Secondly, the Three Lions’ defensive solidity looks to have been hampered massively by Harry Maguire’s recent injury complaints.
The Manchester United skipper, one of the breakout stars of 2018, has missed a serious chunk of action over the past few months, and while he is back in training now, it remains to be seen whether he will ready to feature in Sunday’s opener against Croatia.
Should he miss out, his absence would raise some serious questions.
John Stones’ meteoric return to favour has been so sudden and so unexpected that we should perhaps start calling him ‘Mullet’. The issue is that if you’re going to go all the way in an international tournament, the last thing you want is a party in the back, and as such, the Barnsley Beckenbauer might need somebody a little more conservative, shall we say, to dilute his swashbuckling ethos.
Maguire fits that role to a tee, but without him, Southgate looks to be jamming square pegs into round holes – which is odd when you consider just how many round pegs he apparently named in his squad.
Aside from Stones and Maguire, England have recognised centre-halves Tyrone Mings, Conor Coady, and Ben White at their disposal, and yet, in a ringing endorsement of his own selection policy, the understanding is that the England boss could name full-back Luke Shaw on the left of a defensive three this weekend.
Now, in fairness to Southgate, there are arguments to be made against his other three options in that position. Mings may be left-footed, but he also has a tendency to be erratic, and having two wildcards in a defensive trio could prove to be a little dicey. A solo maverick you can carry – two, not so much. It’s why the A-Team drew the line at B.A. Baracus.
Coady, while more accustomed to playing in a three, is usually the lynchpin at the heart of Wolves’ operation, and White, for all of his promise, only made his England debut last week.
Factor in the success that Southgate has had deploying Kyle Walker in a more central berth, and you begin to see the method in his madness – in theory, at least.
The concern, and it’s a valid one, is that the stats would suggest that Shaw is hardly a natural centre-back.
Twice he has played there this season, and so far he has averaged an aerial duel win rate of just 33.3%. As a point of comparison, Mings has won 68.6% of his headed contests in 2020/21, and the pattern repeats across other aspects of Shaw’s game.
The United man has won 40% of his defensive duels as a centre-back, Mings has won 65.9%. Shaw has made 1.55 interceptions per 90 minutes in the heart of defence, the Aston Villa stalwart has made 5.99.
Obviously, it’s worth reiterating that Shaw is very much a left-back by trade – but that’s kind of the point here. Perhaps one day the 25-year-old can become an admirable centre-half capable of playing in that position for his country. Perhaps, even, he’s already there.
But is it really the time or the place to launch such tentative experiments in an international tournament against a team who knocked you out of the World Cup semi-final just three short years ago?
Fortune favours the brave, and here’s hoping that Southgate's plan pays off, but there’s no denying that this would be a serious gamble from the England manager.