This is a new-look England: younger, fitter, happier. But more productive? They’re in a tough Group D with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, so we’ll find out soon enough. Here are the 10 things you need to know about England before the World Cup begins.
1. The Coach: Roy Hodgson
Since the mid-1970s, Roy Hodgson has been manager of a combined 21 clubs and national teams, primarily in Sweden and England. While “The Hodge” is a veritable legend in Sweden, one can argue that the primary responsibility of England managers is to act as the scapegoat when the Three Lions inevitably fail to go all the way. The good news is that with Hodgson’s extensive resume he shouldn’t have much trouble picking up and starting over if/when England suffer an early exit.
2. Style of Play: Sexier than you remember
It’s easy to rag on England for being the purveyors of Route One football — booting the ball upfield and hoping a sturdy center forward can do something interesting with it. But this Three Lions squad looks to be more cerebral and technically proficient than they’ll receive credit for. With a bevy of young and quick wide players like Raheem Sterling combined with proven finishers in Sturridge and Rooney, their group stage opponents would do well not to underestimate England.
3. The Keeper: Joe Hart is Jekyll and Hide combined
When Joe Hart is good, he’s very good; when he’s bad, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth throughout Ingerlund. Manchester City’s #1 had such a precipitous drop in form in the middle of the Premier League season that Manuel Pellegrini selected Costel Pantilimon ahead of Hart for a month. He ultimately sorted himself out to help usher his club to the knockout rounds in Europe and, eventually, the league title. It remains to be seen which version of Joe Hart will show up in Brazil—and whether Fraser Forster or Ben Foster can step up if Hart stumbles.
4. The Defensive Rocks: Not famous, but fearsome
Age (and off-pitch controversies) aside, England is a theoretically weaker team without John Terry and Rio Ferdinand anchoring the back four. But don’t underestimate their replacements. The near-flawless one-versus-one defending defending of Gary Cahill and the unflappable focus of Phil Jagielka should bring more than enough organization and steel to keep England on their feet.
5. The Creative Force: It’s not all about Rooney
While Wayne Rooney’s production will be absolutely crucial to England’s fortunes, most of the creativity will come from the flanks. Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana are coming off of breakout seasons for their clubs in the Premier League. Additionally, look for Steven Gerrard to use Brazil as an opportunity to grow in his new role as Scouse Pirlo, the deep-lying magic man who can pick the Lions up by the scruff of their necks to get them over the line.
6. The Goalscorer: Dancing Daniel Sturridge
Daniel Sturridge would’ve had a legitimate shot at the Premier League’s Golden Boot, were it not for teammate and Uruguayan trickster god Luis Suárez. With Manchester United’s leading goalscorer Rooney (who was no slouch this season either) sitting behind him in the hole, it’s hard to imagine anyone in Brazil keeping a clean sheet against this team. Expect Sturridge’s goal celebration dance to be a worldwide phenomenon this June.
7. The Weak Spot: Hodgson’s gamble
Of the 23 men named to England’s World Cup roster, only seven have more than 25 caps. Hodgson is clearly banking on youth, which will either be precisely the correct call or a total disaster.
8. The Controversy: Coming soon?
What’s notable about England this World Cup cycle is the lack of major controversy. This is a welcome change from the days of Paul Gascoigne trashing his hotel room on hearing he won’t be in the team, the captain having the armband taken from him due to racist commentary, and the looming menace of the WAGs. Whatever controversy develops around this team will likely wait until after a ball is kicked.
9. The Feelgood Story: Sons of Southampton
Southampton’s delegation: Adam Lallana, the young club captain who’s rescheduling his own wedding to accommodate his England duties; Luke Shaw, the exciting 18- year-old fullback who’s on the wishlists of several big Premier League clubs this summer; and Rickie Lambert, the 32-year-old former factory worker who spent most of his career plying his trade at non-league clubs and in the lower end of the Football League.
10. Expectations: A thin strain of hope
The Three Lions always seem to operate under a cloud of resigned fatalism. Even the team’s captain was bearish about their World Cup chances, with Gerrard noting that “[t]he important thing now is that people don’t get carried away and start putting us as favourites, thinking everything is fine and that we’re a fantastic team.” That said, there’s a thin strain of hope among England fans inspired by Hodgson’s focus on youth and athleticism over experience. If there were ever an opportunity to put the ghosts of England’s past to rest, this summer may be it.
11. Bonus Fact
England have a 1-6 record in penalty shootouts in major international tournaments.