The biennial question: is this England’s year? The answer, most likely, is no. There has, however, been a slow gathering of momentum since Gareth Southgate succeeded Sam Allardyce as national team manager in September 2016.
Two years after the nadir of a defeat to Iceland in the European Championship, the likes of Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart are gone, as is the four-man backline favoured by so many of Southgate’s predecessors.
England’s next generation are now entrusted with shouldering the burden of a country’s hopes (if not expectations), with only three members of the 23-man squad (Ashley Young, Gary Cahill and Jamie Vardy) aged over 30.
Southgate, at the very least, differs from several of his blundering forebears in that he has a clear vision of how the national side should play: a goalkeeper and three-man defence comfortable with the ball at their feet, wing-backs pushed up into midfield, and a high press that starts from the front.
Whether that sound strategy leads to anything other than the usual inglorious early exit is, of course, another matter, but there is plenty to interest Fantasy managers in the group stage at least.
England’s World Cup campaign begins with a meeting with Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday 18 June, before an encounter with Panama in Nizhny Novgorod six days later. Southgate’s side will hope that qualification is sealed before they face Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday 28 June.
Road to Qualification
As has been the case with major tournaments for some time now, England progressed to the World Cup a canter. The Three Lions’ last qualification defeat came in Ukraine in 2009 and, lest we forget, Roy Hodgson’s side went into Euro 2016 off the back of ten wins from ten qualifying matches.
England’s opening qualification group fixture this time around was Sam Allardyce’s only match in charge: a stoppage-time winner from Adam Lallana in Slovakia giving England a deserved 1-0 victory.
Southgate assumed temporary control of the national team for their next three fixtures, a 0-0 draw in Slovenia sandwiched by home wins over Malta and Scotland.
That 3-0 victory over the Auld Enemy – in which all three goals came from headers – led to Southgate being handed the job on a permanent basis, with the former Middlesbrough manager’s first competitive match in charge ending in a comfortable 2-0 victory over Lithuania.
Harry Kane rescued a point for his country in a topsy-turvy game in Glasgow, after two late Leigh Griffiths free-kicks had looked to have given Scotland a rare win over their neighbours.
Wins over Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia (Kane once again on target in stoppage-time) sealed qualification with a match to spare, before the Three Lions saw off Lithuania in a dead rubber in Vilnius.
That final group encounter in October 2017 was significant for England’s change of shape: Southgate had persevered with a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 in competitive fixtures until that point but in Lithuania rolled out the 3-4-2-1 formation he had first experimented with in a friendly against Germany seven months earlier.
Of the 13 UEFA teams who qualified for this summer’s tournament in Russia, only Iceland and Croatia scored fewer qualifying group goals than England (18).
No European country conceded fewer goals than England (three), however, with eight of the Three Lions’ ten group fixtures resulting in clean sheets for the defence: no UEFA nation registered more shut-outs.
Most starts: Kyle Walker (9), Gary Cahill, Jordan Henderson (8), John Stones, Dele Alli, Eric Dier (7), Harry Kane (6), Raheem Sterling (5), Marcus Rashford (4), Danny Rose (3)
Most goals: Harry Kane (5)
Most assists: Jordan Henderson (3), Kyle Walker, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford (2)
Joe Hart, who started all-but-one of England’s ten qualification matches, was omitted from Southgate’s 23-man squad, as were Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana – the only England players bar Kane to score on more than one occasion during qualifying.
England have remained unbeaten in their six international friendlies contested since qualification was sealed: Germany, Brazil and Italy were held to draws, while encounters with the Netherlands, Nigeria and Costa Rica ended in victories.
Southgate’s 3-4-2-1 has gradually evolved into a 3-5-2 over these half-dozen fixtures, with the March friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy notable for two major positional shifts: the deployment of Kyle Walker as a centre-half and Raheem Sterling as a secondary striker.
Jordan Pickford appears to have got the nod as Hart’s replacement, with selection dilemmas remaining at centre-half (Gary Cahill or Harry Maguire) and left wing-back (Ashley Young or Danny Rose).
The Key Targets
Harry Kane (£8.1m on Fantasy iTeam | £11.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is England’s most likely source of goals this summer, off the back of his five strikes in qualifying and a 30-goal season with Tottenham Hotspur.
Kane’s only friendly appearance since November – in the recent 2-1 win over Nigeria – also resulted in a goal for the Spurs man.
On penalty duties for the national side, Kane was presented with a scoring chance every 18.3 minutes in qualification: unsurprisingly, that was the best figure in the England squad.
With a plethora of premium forwards to choose from already, though, Fantasy managers will perhaps want to instead consider Raheem Sterling.
Listed as a £7.1m midfielder on Fantasy iTeam, Sterling is likely to line up “out of position” alongside Kane in Southgate’s expected starting XI.
Sterling has only two goals in 38 international appearances and hasn’t scored for England since 2015, with two assists his only attacking returns during qualification.
The majority of those appearances, of course, have been wide right in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, rather than as a strike partner for Kane.
Sterling was directly involved in 35 of Manchester City’s goals this season, though hasn’t delivered a goal or assist in three international friendly starts since November.
The City star’s underlying statistics in his most recent England appearance against Nigeria were encouraging, however: no England player had more shots or penalty area touches than Sterling in that 2-1 win over the Super Eagles.
Sterling is priced up as a £9.0m forward on McDonald’s FIFA, some £2.0m cheaper than Kane.
Like Sterling, Dele Alli’s (£7.0m on Fantasy iTeam | £9.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) attacking returns for England haven’t mirrored his performances at club level.
The Spurs midfielder has registered 37 goals and 36 assists in his last three Premier League seasons combined, but has scored on only two occasions for the national side in that time: Alli’s last England goal came in October 2016.
One goal and two assists in seven qualification starts represented a modest haul, but no England midfielder had a better chance-per-minute average than the former MK Dons prospect.
With Kyle Walker (£6.2m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) seemingly set for a centre-half role, Kieran Trippier (£5.9m on Fantasy iTeam |£5.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) looks nailed on for the wing-back position on the right flank.
Trippier made only one start for England during qualification, but has since appeared in five of England’s six friendlies and has only rookie Trent Alexander-Arnold for competition in that right wing-back role.
As well as Trippier’s obvious crossing threat from open play (the Spurs defender recorded seven assists in Fantasy Premier League in 2017/18), the former Burnley full-back is set to feature prominently at set-pieces: Trippier provided the assist for Gary Cahill’s goal against Nigeria from a corner and was heavily involved with both direct and indirect free-kicks.
John Stones (£6.0m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) looks certain to feature in the centre of defence, having been the only player to start all six of England’s post-qualification friendlies.
The Manchester City defender kept clean sheets in five of those six appearances, while all seven of his qualifying starts also resulted in shut-outs.
Jordan Pickford (£5.8m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) is another reasonably priced route into that strong England backline, having seemingly seen off Nick Pope and Jack Butland’s challenges for the goalkeeper’s jersey.
The Long Shots
Ashley Young (£5.9m on Fantasy iTeam |£5.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) is priced up identically to Kieran Trippier and indeed Danny Rose in our two featured Fantasy World Cup games and is listed as a defender in both.
The Young/Rose conundrum is arguably Southgate’s most difficult decision to make, with both players performing admirably at left wing-back in recent wins over Nigeria and Costa Rica respectively.
Gareth Southgate’s recent proclivity to have his full-backs on set-piece duties and in advanced roles means that whoever gets the nod should have ample opportunities to reward their Fantasy owners with assist points.
While Rose and Trippier have yet to score for the national side, Young has seven goals in 34 international appearances.
Though he recorded a squad-high of three assists in qualification, Jordan Henderson (£6.0m on Fantasy iTeam |£6.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) will presumably see less action at dead-ball situations with Trippier and/or Young in the side and is perhaps one to swerve from a Fantasy perspective.
Jesse Lingard (£6.8m on Fantasy iTeam |£7.5m on McDonald’s FIFA), rather than Henderson, would appear to be the go-to midfield alternative to Alli.
Marcus Rashford (£7.3m on Fantasy iTeam |£8.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) reminded Southgate of his abilities in the 2-0 win over Costa Rica, scoring a sensational goal and delivering a man-of-the-match performance in a striker’s role alongside Jamie Vardy.
Rashford is likely to play second fiddle to Raheem Sterling in the ancillary position alongside Harry Kane, but is one to monitor as the tournament progresses.
The Manchester United youngster created more chances during UEFA qualification than all other forwards bar Germany’s Thomas Muller.
Gary Cahill’s (£6.1m on Fantasy iTeam |£5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) spot in the England squad, let alone the starting XI, was in some doubt for much of the season, having struggled for a consistent run of starts in the Chelsea team and been dropped by Southgate for the March friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy.
Cahill will likely challenge Harry Maguire (£5.8m on Fantasy iTeam |£5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) for the third centre-half spot alongside Stones and Walker, but represents excellent value on McDonald’s FIFA if selected: Cahill is the only England centre-half with international goals to his name (five) and scored in the recent 2-1 win over Nigeria.
Fantasy Football Scout is supporting Fantasy iTeam, a free World Cup game available on a number of mobile devices, including iPhone, iPad, iPodTouch and Android. We have an official Fantasy Football Scout League open to UK users only, with a £1000 of Amazon vouchers to give out, split between the top three performers. There’s also the small matter of £10k worth of prizes available in the main competitions: Overall World Championship and Manager of the Gameround.
Click here for details and here to sign up.
Our League name is Fantasy Football Scout and the pin is 1887.
Please note, users must be over 18 and based in the UK to join our league.
World Cup Data
We’re delighted to offer World Cup data as an early addition to our regular season offering to help those playing Fantasy games over the summer.
We’ve secured Opta data, not only for the tournament itself, which begins on June 14 but also from the Qualifying Rounds for Europe and South America and for international friendlies involving the participating nations. This includes all the matches played right up to the tournament kick-off.
Just to stress, this World Cup offering comes packaged with the regular Fantasy Football Scout membership.
Check out this new trailer previewing the World Cup content below…