England, the eternal football mystery
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Though untroubled in qualifying, England approach Friday's 2018 World Cup draw harbouring the same eternal doubts about whether they will crack under pressure once the tournament comes around.
England have picked up the pieces impressively under Gareth Southgate since their humiliation by Iceland at Euro 2016, finishing unbeaten and eight points clear in their qualifying group.
Young players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford promise a bright future, but memories of successive tournament failures mean any optimism is tempered by the caution of bitter experience.
"At the end of the day, we've not won anything for a long time," says Kane.
"The biggest (challenge) is playing tournament football. Ability-wise, I don't think we're far off, but it's producing on that big stage. It's something that we've got to change."
"Brittle" was the word used by Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn to describe England's psychological problems after the Iceland debacle, which yielded manager Roy Hodgson's resignation.
The England squad's delicate psychic state was not helped by events that followed, as Sam Allardyce, Hodgson's successor, was brought down by a newspaper sting after just one game in charge.
Southgate, promoted from his role as England Under-21s manager, has tackled the issue head-on, encouraging dialogue among his players about the appropriate mental responses to on-pitch adversity.
England made light work of a straightforward qualifying group featuring Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania and Malta, dropping only four points on the road to Russia.
But a number of their victories were laborious and they completed qualification against Slovenia in front of swathes of empty red seats at Wembley.
- Stones blossoms -
The most recent international get-together earlier this month demonstrated both Southgate's desire to widen England's tactical range and his readiness to make bold selection decisions.
Having already jettisoned captain and record scorer Wayne Rooney, Southgate chose to overlook players such as Chris Smalling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge.
A raft of injuries meant he was forced to field two distinctly green teams against Germany and Brazil, but his new charges performed creditably in a pair of 0-0 draws.
"We're at a different point on our journey (to Germany and Brazil), but we will take huge belief from what we've done," Southgate said.
The games also served to help Southgate test the 3-4-2-1 system that he is eager to employ in light of its successful adoption by several leading Premier League clubs.
The draws with Germany and Brazil further illustrated England's defensive solidity after a qualifying campaign in which they conceded just three goals -- a tally matched only by Spain in Europe.
Despite that, there are question marks about goalkeeper Joe Hart, who faces competition from Stoke City's Jack Butland and Everton's Jordan Pickford.
With John Stones blossoming at Manchester City, England now possess an authoritative figure in central defence who is capable of bringing the ball out from the back in the manner Southgate desires.
Stones's City team-mate Kyle Walker and Tottenham Hotspur's Danny Rose provide pace and power on the flanks and in Kane, who has scored 47 goals for club and country in 2017, England possess a first-rate frontman.
But though Alli, Rashford and Raheem Sterling give England plenty of variety in attacking midfield, aside from Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson there is a paucity of quality and experience in the centre of the pitch.
© 2017 AFP