A New Order – Why England Shouldn’t Expect to Win the World Cup

England expects? Evidence shows that it is in fact best to expect the worst from England’s World Cup campaigns. Tom Bogert writes about tempering expectations and the need for setting the bar low.
A New Order - Why England Shouldn't Expect to Win the World Cup
Art by Debanjan Chowdhury.

Life is all about relativity and managing expectations. A shrewd way to navigate this obstacle course of life is to underpromise and overdeliver.

Managing expectations is key because it crafts how we view every single experience. When going into each scenario, our brain calculates what we believe to be a sensible projection of what’s to come.

We assume how long a car ride will take, how much fun a party might be, how much sleep we expect to get on a given night and everything in between.

Most importantly, we prophesise how our beloved clubs will do in their season and how our countries will get on at the World Cup.

Since  Bobby Moore captained England to winning the 1966 World Cup on home territory – as well as the behemoth that the Premier League has mutated into -expectations for the England national team have perpetually been inflated.

And at each subsequent major international tournament, the England national team has been a relative disappointment.

Every ‘golden generation’ has struggled to come jump anywhere near those sky-high expectations. David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Barnes, Michael Owen, Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne – all brilliant footballers who have, to varying degrees, been part of the blame for failing to come close to what was expected of them in an England shirt.

But, is it fair? What if we’ve been looking at it all wrong? What if, somehow, they’ve actually been overachieving?

A “Soccernomics” guide to England’s place in World Football

Realistically, expectations have been dangerously optimistic for where England’s seat at the table of world football should be.

Since winning the 1966 World Cup, England hasn’t had much to celebrate.

They haven’t been in another World Cup final since and just one semifinal in 12 attempts. They’ve been to two semifinals in the EUROs, including one where only four teams made the tournament in 1968.

Their performance based on expectation isn’t dissimilar to the country’s general forecast: cloudy and dark.

But, again, life is all about relativity and managing expectations. Instead of treating the 1966 World Cup as an unlikely triumph, it’s been used as the measuring stick. And that measuring stick is much too tall for England.

“Any mathematician would say it’s absurd to expect England to win the World Cup,” Simon Kuper, a journalist, and Stefan Szymanski, an economist, wrote in their brilliant book “Soccernomics”.

Unfortunately for the players and coaching staff, mathematicians aren’t the ones outraged when England disappoint. Mathematicians offer objectivity; fans do not, sometimes journalists don’t either. Scathing articles populate newspapers and blogs, fans show their displeasure to the team whenever they can.

“The sad fact is that England is a good team that does better than most,” Kuper and Szymanski wrote. “This means it is not likely to win many tournaments, and it doesn’t.”

Throughout the England chapter of their book, Kuper and Szymanski detail that England’s win percentage is about 70 percent (when calling a draw half of a win) in recent years. That number is about where teams need to be to qualify for major tournaments, and when England has failed to do that, their win percentage has essentially still been around that mark.

They didn’t qualify because of randomness, and the team has been predictable in the marco sense. But, one of football’s charms, we’re constantly fooled and excited in the day-to-day proceedings. The Premier League has had only six different champions since its inception; the Bundesliga is constantly dominated by Bayern Munich, the same clubs generally last longest in the Champions League. Yet, every season, we forget the macro and are wonderfully surprised about the journey we take to get to mildly predictable outcomes.

The pair also try to tackle the idea of expectations, empirically searching for how a country should be expected to perform.

They found that the main pillars to make up expectations are experience, which is no longer an advantage for England with all top countries now having played more than enough games; GDP, which benefits the wealthiest countries of course; and population.

Under those pillars, Kuper and Szymanski find that England actually overachieve rather than underachieve.

“Our conclusion: England does just fine,” Kuper and Szymanski wrote. “The team actually performs better than expected, given what it has to start with.”

If the collective world looked at the country in that light, that England was an overachieving side like Liverpool in this season’s Champions League or Costa Rica in 2014’s World Cup, there’d be more smiles than outrage.

But, going into the 2018 World Cup, the narrative around England is a much different story than normal. It is one that’s closer to reality than fiction: no one with a British passport expects much from this team.

It’s true; this iteration of an English World Cup side is not the same as in the past. The players are more dynamic, the manager is more subdued, the fans and media aren’t expecting Harry Kane to lift the trophy by the end of the tournament.

Maybe, just maybe, this can work to their benefit.

Old England vs. New England

In Russia, England will be managed by Gareth Southgate. He’s much different than those who have sat in his seat in recent years.

Southgate isn’t a fine-art  enthusiast as Fabio Capello was. He doesn’t have a bloated ego or torso like Sam Allardyce does. And, mercifully, he’s simply not Roy Hodgson.

It’s refreshing.

Southgate sensibly named his 23-man squad earlier than required. With it, there were a few surprises. Teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold was included, while longtime England keeper Joe Hart was left home, as were other regulars Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana.

For all that swaggering triumvirate of disappointment strove ever so dearly to radiate, would Capello, Hodgson or Allardyce have had the stones to leave Hart, Lallana and Wilshere behind as Southgate did in 2018?

It would have been safe to bring the trio. But Southgate didn’t take the peaceful route, and he’s been congratulated for it.

Southgate represents a change in recent years as the previous three managers were in their 60s when given the job. Southgate is 47 years old and spent three years managing the U21 national team.

Southgate has a modern view of the game and has shifted the team to a 3-5-2 which is very much unlike the England of old. Roy would be screaming for more banks of four if he had his way.

The manager is exciting. The collective squad represents a tectonic shift from the old guard in recent years. The players are exciting.

Exciting is something England haven’t normally been for the right reasons. They’ve been entertaining the same way a pub fight is, which is unflattering to those involved but amusing to neutrals.

“I believe this is a squad which we can be excited about,” said Southgate, via Telegraph. “We have a lot of energy and athleticism in the team, but players that are equally comfortable in possession of the ball and I think people can see the style of play we’ve been looking to develop.”

Southgate is right. They’ll have energy and athleticism, two adjectives that couldn’t be placed further from past teams.

There are just three players over 30-years-old on the team: Gary Cahill, Ashley Young and Jamie Vardy. Conversely, there are nine players 24 or younger, including likely stalwarts Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli.

The youthful presence in this England side is a welcomed change. With youth normally comes an extra jolt of pace, another welcomed change.

All around Kane, England won’t be short on speed. Depending on who starts, any combination of Sterling, Vardy, Alli or Marcus Rashford will be flying around the captain.

With a three-man backline, the team will be dynamic. Again, another adjective that couldn’t be placed further from past teams.

The wingbacks will be given great opportunity, perhaps Alexander-Arnold will have yet another breakout this summer if he wins a starting role.

A Newer Hope

In 2014, the squad participated in the minimum guaranteed three games then went home. A quick holiday to Brazil with a little football on the side.

They lost to Italy, they lost to Uruguay, then they drew Costa Rica, finishing a distant fourth place in the group.

Poetically, it was some of the Premier League’s favorite villains landing the fatal blows. Mario Balotelli scored the winner for Italy and an injured Luis Suarez hit the Three Lions with a brace that effectively ended their dreams for knockout-stage football.

In 2018, England have been handed a kinder draw. For writers, there are few Premier League villains that could take the headlines as Southgate’s side has been drawn with Tunisia, Panama and Belgium.

Conversely, it could set the team up for more disappointment. But fans have long been conditioned to expect the worse. Algeria in 2010 didn’t go as per logical expectations.

If England make it out of the group stage, as they damn well should, they’ll play unshackled from the cripplng weight of expectation. With that newfound freedom, perhaps England can roar.

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Tom Bogert

A fan of repetitive disappointment and frustration, I hold Liverpool and the New York Red Bulls near and dear to my heart.