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What’s up with England? Fenwick suggests why “Three Lions” are roaring at Russia World Cup 

On Wednesday, England will contest a FIFA World Cup semifinal for the first time in 28 years. But should we be surprised by their success in Russia?

In 2017, England secured a historic treble of international titles at youth level as they were crowned FIFA Under-20 and Under-17 World Youth Cup champions and European Under-19 winners in the same calendar year.

So is their current progress happenstance? Or the dawn of a new era?

Photo: England captain Harry Kane (centre) is congratulated by teammates after his strike against Tunisia in World Cup group stage action on 18 June 2018.
(Copyright Kieran McManus/Shutterstock)

Wired868 tries to get some answers from ex-England World Cup player Terry Fenwick, who, like current England head coach Gareth Southgate, is a disciple of former England and Barcelona coach Terry Venables:

Wired868: Why have England done this well so far?

Terry Fenwick: It’s only a surprise to anyone outside of England, because our form over the last two years has been very good. Our new-found confidence is down to two main factors.

First, great development at Under-17 to Under-20 levels, which is now seeing more players coming through to the National Senior Team having done very well at the development age groups. These guys had excellent coaches—and indeed Southgate was one of these youth coaches—so the transition has been relatively easy for so many of these kids and there has been no friction with a big name foreign coach [from outside of that system].

My understanding from people close to the team is also that Southgate is a great man manager. He is someone who spends time with individuals—much the same as the late Sir Bobby Robson—and creates a bond with players, who are then prepared to do anything for him.

Photo: England head coach Gareth Southgate (centre) has a word with his players before their penalty shootout with Colombia in their World Cup Round of 16 meeting.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

Wired868: Why is England suddenly this good at set pieces and why are they so difficult to stop? 

Fenwick: I think Southgate has read the situation perfectly with the introduction of new technology. VAR has restricted defenders’ ability to get away with man-handling opposing players—before and during set plays—and England are one of the few teams who have played by the rules. Other teams look like they are adjusting as the tournament progresses.

Strategically, England are using “block off [or pick and roll]” movements to free someone up for a header or shot from set pieces. You can recognise that whoever is at the back of the crowd always ends up at the front [to attack the ball] and vice versa.

The main targets they work to free up are [Harry] Maguire, [John] Stones and Harry Kane; and other bodies are actively blocking their markers to get space for them.

Wired868: What other assets do this England team have that do not get as much attention?

Fenwick: These guys are young, very athletic and used to playing in front of big crowds; there has been very little fear displayed in performances. Players like [Jesse] Lingard, [Raheem] Sterling, Kane, [Marcus] Rashford, [Kieran] Trippier and [Kyle] Walker have enjoyed success at Under-20 level and expect to win.

Photo: England players celebrate during their World Cup quarterfinal win over Sweden on 7 July 2018.
(Courtesy FIFA/Getty)

There is a very different mindset to English players today. They are tough, confident and up for the big occasion.

I’m seeing a very close knit England squad, who are battling together. Team spirit is sky high, they are keeping the good on the inside and the bad far away from the team.  Good management always gives us a chance.

Wired868: What do you see as Croatia’s strengths?

Fenwick: Croatia are a very hard working dogged side, built around three main players, who are midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and forward Mario Mandzukic. Modric and Rakitic, in particular, shoulder most of the responsibility for their team’s performance and create most of their positive work.

They are not attractive to watch but effective, hard working and efficient. They always manage to stay in the game, are mean at the back and are usually set up to be solid defensively. Croatia wear you down, wait on your mistakes and try to capitalise. Will their luck run out is the question.

Everything good that happens in the Croatia team comes through Luca Modric. Stop him and you stop Croatia.

Photo: Croatia playmaker and captain Luka Modric (left) takes Denmark midfielder Thomas Delaney for a run during their Round of 16 meeting on 1 July 2018.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

Wired868: What would you say is England’s weakness?

Fenwick: Sloppy passing from the back three! Stones, in particular, is guilty of overplaying at the back and we have seen him make multiple mistakes at Manchester City this season; but Walker and Maguire are also complacent at times.

Wired868: What factor is key to a result in Wednesday’s semifinal?

Fenwick: The pace of the game. England need to keep the tempo high and make it a physical, running game. Croatia have a limited bench and fitness will kick in if England keep it fast and furious.

Wired868: Have you noticed any new or re-emerging tactical trends at this World Cup?

Fenwick: Strange enough, it is the European teams that are prepared to gamble more players forward by reducing numbers at the back. England, my god, are a great example. They were conservative in the past but are now comfortable and competent with a back three in which all three players are capable of stepping into midfield.

Photo: England defender Harry Maguire (right) celebrates his opening goal against Sweden with teammate John Stones during their 2-0 World Cup quarterfinal win on 7 July 2018.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

Possession of the ball is key in today’s game—the ability to strategically keep hold of the ball until that great chance comes along and not squander possession on a half-chance. Pep Guardiola and Barcelona tweaked so many conventional tactics and younger coaches with less fear are running with different variations of those ideas.

Wired868: What do you think about VAR and its usage?

Fenwick: I love VAR when it’s not stopping the game every two seconds. The ability to get good advice from the backroom VAR staff is making big calls much easier for referees.

My concern is that players are abusing the facility by faking, so as to involve VAR. The penalty box is a minefield today with players seeking VAR intervention for the faintest of touches inside the box. It’s very new and more time will improve its usage. Overall, I think it is a good ting!

Photo: England captain Harry Kane scores from the penalty spot against Panama in World Cup group stage action on 24 June 2018, after VAR intervention.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

About Lasana Liburd

Lasana Liburd
Lasana Liburd is the CEO and Editor at Wired868.com and a journalist with over 20 years experience at several Trinidad and Tobago and international publications including Play the Game, World Soccer, UK Guardian and the Trinidad Express.

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30 comments

  1. Terry’s concern about England overplaying in the back looks to be spot on.

  2. Well said defensive strategies is the key in this world cup

  3. everything favours England and France final is a new world cup era the inventors vs the teachers

  4. PL starting on Saturday Belgium vs England..

  5. No real competitive team was lef on that half of the table except Columbia and it went down to penalty shoot-out. Semis is the end for them.

  6. Great article…hoping for a top finish from this England run..

  7. England’s path to the semis, Tunisia, Panama, Belgium, Colombia, Sweden. Tunisia and Panama are not considered a team to be worried about. I victory by either team would have been an upset. They did not need a win over Belgium. Although Colombia is considered a bigger challenge than Tunisia and Panama, the odds were in any English team’s favour to come out on top, (always the possibility of an upset). Sweden the low scoring team would also not be favoured to beat any English team.

    Most English teams given this draw would have made it to the semis.

  8. How fortunate to have Terry Fenwick, someone who has played at WC level, and worked with the greats of the sport, to discuss today’s strategy on the field. Thanks for sharing.

  9. They also learned from the Germans and Spanish youth setup the young generation is the key hope we could learn that here

    • Yes, why reinvent the wheel. The TTFA can be an example to the rest of society by not reinventing the wheel, following & executing a plan. Fed up with our scatter gun approach to everything.

  10. Completely agree with everything Terry Fenwick says. This is no accident which makes it even more impressive. The only other factor I would add is the influence of Poch, Guard, Klopp & Mourhino. Clearly these guys have been major influences at club level which has accelerated the FA’s plan. The next generation coming through potentially are frightening. Certainly the best crop in my lifetime.