DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Nine years have passed since then-English Football Association president Greg Dyke set the national team the audacious goal of winning the 2022 World Cup.
While that goal may not seem as fanciful as it once did, the problems that Dyke said had held England back for almost 50 years, since their only win in 1966, remain relevant ahead of Monday’s Group B opening game against Iran.
A Premier League awash with global talent means fewer local players in the top flight for England manager Gareth Southgate to pick from.
In 2013, Dyke described it as a “scary trend”, saying that “English football is a tanker that needs a turn”.
“The problem is serious, very serious,” he said in a speech that proved correct, not least because England have so far met or exceeded their targets despite ongoing concerns that have yet to be fully addressed.
Those main goals included “at least” reaching the semi-finals of the 2020 European Championship. England lost to Italy on penalties in the final of last year’s tournament, which was delayed 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At the last World Cup in Russia, Southgate led his team to the semi-finals, which was ahead of Dyke’s schedule.
As part of his nine-year plan, Dyke also wanted progress to be reflected at youth level.
“I would like to see us well at the 2017 U-20 World Cup,” he said.
England won that tournament, as well as the Under-17s in the same year.
Dyke’s goals have been eerily accurate, and England’s trajectory over the past four years points towards a serious challenge in Qatar. But Southgate still considers himself hampered by the same problems his predecessors faced.
Nine years ago, Dyke was talking about only 32% English players in the starting line-ups of Premier League clubs. The picture painted by Southgate when he announced his 26-man squad last week was not more encouraging.
“Everyone says we have tremendous depth, but last year we were 31% of the league,” Southgate said. “Because the team has done well, it has masked that we currently only have four English goalkeepers playing in the Premier League. Left-backs, there aren’t many playing”.
Southgate singled out defensive midfield as an area for English academies to focus on at a time when he had to select Kalvin Phillips, despite the Manchester City player managing just 40 minutes of action since shoulder surgery at September.
Not a single player who appeared in the final of the U-20 World Cup-winning team is part of Southgate’s team in Qatar. Only Phil Foden and Conor Gallagher have made it from the winning U17 team.
Still, this year’s team is considered to have generational talent in the form of Foden, Jude Bellingham and Jack Grealish in particular. But England enter this World Cup with a glimpse of what could have been.
The successes of 2018 and Euro 2020 have felt anticipated with the promise that a host of players would mature in time for this year’s competition. Last year, Southgate might have hoped that Mason Greenwood would have established himself at the helm of Manchester United’s attack and as a true rival to Harry Kane as England’s centre-forward.
A prodigious talent, who is equally clinical on either foot, he looked as exciting as any English prospect since Wayne Rooney. But the striker, who has been charged with attempted rape, controlling and coercive conduct and assault, has not played since January after being suspended by United.
Jadon Sancho’s form has declined alarmingly since he joined United from Borussia Dortmund in 2021 for $100m and he is no longer in the England picture. To a lesser extent, his club teammate Marcus Rashford has failed to develop as expected but remains part of the Southgate squad after a promising start to the season.
Injuries to Chelsea wingers Reece James and Ben Chilwell have also dealt a major blow to England’s preparations. But if Southgate couldn’t control any of those situations, an apparent reluctance to make Foden a focal point of his team is in him.
Compared to City’s great David Silva as he progressed at club level, he is widely regarded by the national team as the player England have missed since Paul Gascoigne in the 1990s. However, Southgate has failed to find a foothold. stable for the 22-year-old forward neither in midfield nor in attack.
For a nation that has long struggled to maintain possession against the best teams, a player who can manipulate the ball as well as Foden should be a fixture. Instead, there is no guarantee that he will start against Iran, nor in what position he would play.
Southgate’s handling of Foden, and Grealish, fuels the belief among some that the manager is too conservative and too reliant on a trustworthy few. Harry Maguire is expected to be at the heart of the defense despite being left out this season by United. Raheem Sterling is likely to stand out despite the fact that he has had a difficult start at Chelsea. Phillips and Kyle Walker are on the team despite injuries.
But they have all produced consistently for England, particularly in major tournaments.
While critics may accuse Southgate of blind faith, it could point to the lack of options that Dyke cited nine years ago.
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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson