Doubts surround England despite World Cup qualificationThe Associated Press — By STEVE DOUGLAS - AP Sports Writer
Led by one of the world's best strikers, England qualified for next year's World Cup with a game to spare and was unbeaten in 10 group games.
So what's to worry about?
Plenty, it turns out.
Rarely will there have been less expectation on an England side going into a major tournament, with doubts surrounding the depth and ability in the playing squad, the lack of experience of its coach and the psychological frailties of the team in international competition.
The Premier League has never been as rich, as popular or as buoyant, but that isn't reflected in the country's national team, where apathy and public disillusionment rules.
And no wonder. England lost to Iceland in the last 16 at the 2016 European Championship for one of its most embarrassing results ever, and didn't get out of its group at the 2014 World Cup after losses in its first two games.
"Are we going to become Spain in the next eight months?" England coach Gareth Southgate said. "No, no we're not."
First, the undoubted positive: Harry Kane.
The Tottenham striker cannot stop scoring, whether it's for club or country, and has 43 goals in all competitions in 2017.
England fans can console themselves with the thought that no matter how underwhelming the rest of its side is, they have a player in Kane who is a potential match-winner.
The World Cup in Russia will be his second major international tournament, having failed to score in four matches at Euro 2016 when then-coach Roy Hodgson had him on corner-kick duty.
Southgate will also hope forward Marcus Rashford continues his rapid development at Manchester United and can strike up some kind of rapport with Kane in the coming months.
Oh, for the days of Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Frank Lampard.
England's midfield options used to be so plentiful, even if successive coaches rarely got the best out of the players and often put square pegs in round holes.
Nowadays, it's the team's weak link, a department short of genuine quality, experience or creativity.
Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Jake Livermore, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Fabian Delph and recent debutant Harry Winks are currently the options in central midfield. Four of them (Dier, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Delph and Winks) aren't even guaranteed starters for their clubs and the other two aren't in the best form.
Southgate desperately needs Adam Lallana to return from injury to add some vision behind the strikers. There's still the hope that injury-prone Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere can get back to his best, but England has been waiting a while for that.
To get around his shortage of midfield quality, Southgate may choose to play a 3-4-3 formation, which utilizes wing backs and only requires two out-and-out midfielders.
Southgate was the only candidate to replace Sam Allardyce, who was forced out as England coach in September 2016 after unguarded comments to undercover reporters that made his position untenable, according to the Football Association.
Five months before getting the job, Southgate had said he lacked the experience for such a role. At that time, he was the England under-21 coach and his only previous first-team managerial role — at Middlesbrough in the Premier League — ended in 2009 after three years.
Now, he is preparing to coach at a World Cup, with all the scrutiny and pressure that brings. He is clean-cut, speaks well and doesn't dodge any issues, such as dropping Wayne Rooney when first taking charge.
The big question marks surround his ability to handle the big occasion, the big matches. Is he tactically astute? Will he stick to his principles and beliefs under the most testing of circumstances?
WEIGHT OF THE JERSEY
It is now more than 50 years since England, the country that invented soccer, won its one and only major tournament — the 1966 World Cup. The weight of history is proving immense.
British newspapers can be unforgiving. Steven Gerrard described the pressure of being an England player as "brutal." Martin Glenn, chief executive of the FA, said such was the "fear factor" against Iceland at Euro 2016 that "you could actually sense players freezing up."
Glenn has spoken about using mental coaches ahead of tournaments to toughen up England's players, who are some of the most hyped and talked-about in world soccer because they play in the Premier League.
Southgate already has a difficult job squeezing the best out of an average group of players. Throw in the psychological element, and it gets even harder.
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80