John Aldridge: England have taken a risk playing three at the back - and I think there is a weak link there
SO that’s it then - football’s coming home and the engraver needs to start etching the name of England on to the World Cup trophy.
If you are living over here in England, you could be forgiven for believing this World Cup is done and dusted, the open top bus needs to be booked for London in mid-July and Sir Gareth Southgate needs to ink a date into his diary to meet the Queen and receive his knighthood.
As tends to be the case when England show any hint of making progress at a World Cup, the nation goes ballistic and while I have no problem with the fans having a few beers in the sun and dreaming of glory, you can see the press cranking up their hype machine in readiness to hammer the players when it all goes wrong.
Wins against Tunisia and Panama were a great start for England out in Russia, but the diluted pre-tournament expectations will now rapidly be replaced with a belief that that World Cup glory is within reach.
Along with around 10 other teams, England could win this World Cup, but they would still be in my list of outsiders despite scoring eight goals in their first two games.
I’d put England alongside Croatia as a dark horse to have a good run in Russia, but I would still have plenty of teams ahead of them when it comes to going all the way and lifting the trophy.
England have holes in their make-up and they will be exposed when they come up against some decent opposition, but from what we have seen in the opening matches, they are the best team in the competition when it comes to scoring goals from set-pieces.
They have height and power in the box, a fine penalty box poacher in Harry Kane, good delivery from Kieran Trippier and a coaching team that seem to have worked out some nice plans to make good use of corners and free-kicks around the box.
The move featuring Jordan Henderson that paved the way for John Stones’ second goal was well crafted and showed that this group of players are getting rewards for their hard work on the training ground.
Yet I look at this England team and it is not hard to find problems lurking beneath the euphoria, with Raheem Sterling’s form a big concern.
There was a lot of media hype around Sterling in the build-up to this tournament and I wonder whether he is now feeling the pressure to respond to that on the pitch.
He has missed chances in both of England’s opening games and Southgate to accept the Manchester City winger is not at it and replace him with Marcus Rashford.
I also feel Kyle Walker could be a problem for them in the defensive three at the back.
Walker is a wing-back and is not used to playing a central defensive role, which is evident when you see some of the positions he has got himself into in the opening two games.
He gave away the penalty against Tunisia because he got himself into the wrong position and he was caught out against a very average Panama side on a couple of occasions on Sunday.
So far, his pace has got him out of trouble, but he won’t get away with that against Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard if they play against England on Thursday.
That England defence has not been tested yet and we need to see them standing up to top quality opposition before assessing whether they are the real deal at this World Cup.
My view is that they are an accident waiting to happen. Will a back three of Harry Maguire, John Stones and Walker crack when the pressure is applied? I think we all know the answer to that question.
However, we might have to wait for confirmation because it looks like the England v Belgium game will be a bit of a phoney war ahead of the last-16 games that will come up for the two nations on either Monday or Tuesday of next week.
Both Southgate and Belgium boss Roberto Martinez are looking to rest key men in this game on Thursday, so the outcome may not be as significant in terms of assessing the merits of both sides as we initially expected.
That judgement will wait for their last-16 game and while England can dare to dream right now, the narrative around Southgate and his players might have been transformed from one of expectant excitement to a storyline of recrimination and finger-pointing as new villains are cast after the latest World Cup disaster.
That has been how the England story at the World Cup has worked for the last 52 years and I’d be very surprised if it changes this summer.
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