Ashley Westwood played for big-name clubs including Sheffield Wednesday during his 403-game career in the top flight of English football before coaching sides in India and Malaysia – so it’s safe to say he knows his football back to front.
Here he tells Daily Mail Australia why his country is primed for its best run at the World Cup title for decades, the shortcoming that could see the Three Lions fail to hoist the trophy for the first time since 1966 – and what the Socceroos have to do to go one better than their stunning run to the Round of 16 in Qatar.
WHY THE THREE LIONS CAN ROAR IN QATAR
It’s definitely the strongest chance we’ve had for a couple of generations. Look at the players: Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford – every single one of them would get a start in most teams because they’re exciting players who can be matchwinners on their own. They can score a goal out of nothing from their own work, they don’t have to be on the end of a perfect team goal.
Gareth Southgate will get heavily criticised if he doesn’t get to the latter stages with those stars. Yes, they had a few sticky results before the World Cup and they didn’t do enough to take the game away from Italy in the Euro 2020 final. That’s always been the thing with England; they have plenty of attacking stars but can play too conservatively.
But in this World Cup the difference is Jude Bellingham. He’s an attacking midfielder, so we don’t have the two holding midfielders as we did in the past with Declan Rice and your Jordan Hendersons. So they’ve been freer with their attacking play, as you saw against Iran and Senegal. The criticism is they never truly get the shackles off and play to win, they play not to lose, and that’s always been the frustrating thing from an England perspective. But in a tournament like the World Cup you can’t be gung-ho in every game.
It’s a double-edged sword – do you entertain and try to win 4-2, or do you do enough to stay in the match, stay in the tournament? Teams can lose and still win the WC. They always say normally to win a Word Cup you have to win a penalty shootout, which the flip of a coin. The English fan likes to be entertained, but at the end of the day you can’t argue with Southgate’s record, he’s the most successful England manager in 50 years.
THE BIG WORLD CUP CHANGE SPURRING ENGLAND ON
England are the side that’s best placed to take advantage of the big jump in the amount of extra time at the World Cup, and the switch from four substitutes to five.
They’ve brought the most valuable squad to Doha. If you look at the players who haven’t always got a look-in – Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, James Maddison – they’re all $170million stars who aren’t even in the starting line-up.
They’ve got seven to eight really strong attackers, so they’ve got the luxury of putting players on who won’t weaken the side. Instead, England bring them on to make an impact, to make the team stronger.
THE CHINK IN ENGLAND’S ARMOUR
We struggle for central defenders. The two at the minute are picking themselves because there’s not enough competition. We may see him tweak the system and go to a back three when Kyle Walker’s fully fit.
I’ve heard Southgate mention that the No.6, the Declan Rice position, there’s a huge shortage in that across the country. The England Football Association are looking into the development of the academies to see where these defensive midfielders have gone. The position is kind of getting phased out in England, possibly because everyone wants to be entertained.
If Declan Rice gets injured we have Henderson to an extent, but he’s not really in the Rice mould. We still have problems with our culture, our academies in England because we’re not producing those No.6s these days.
WHAT HAS STOOD OUT FOR ME IN QATAR
It’s the physicality of the players. They’re huge specimens. Everyone seems to be six foot, six foot two, and your little Lionel Messis are few and far between these days. Everyone is pretty robotic with their structure and their size, speed and strength. The physical output players produce is standing out despite the humidity and the heat in Qatar. You need to have everything in a player, in the Jude Bellingham mould, to get to the top. This has been developed around the world for years and now the physicality is reaching its peak.
WHAT THE SOCCEROOS MUST DO TO KEEP IMPROVING
The Asian nations have really made their mark at this tournament with the Socceroos, Japan and South Korea all making the Round of 16. But compared to many of their competitors in Asia, the Australians are lagging behind.
Look at the Japanese league, which started at around the same time as the A-League. There are now three strong leagues with J1, J2 and J3. They have huge infrastructure, most of the top clubs own their own training ground, their own purpose-built stadium. And there’s promotion and relegation, in contrast to Australia.
In the United Arab Emirates they have the investment and the owners to attract the best players, the best foreigners, which improves standards. I know from my time coaching in India, you get foreigners and they improve the local players. It would be the same for Australia. There’s a lot of work to be done. It all comes down to what the owners are prepared to spend, and what they can get back in revenue.
The battle to keep young talent is intense. The registration fees in Australia can be $2,500 and upwards just play football, which is the opposite of how it works in superpowers like England.
It’s hard to keep the Australian players here. In leagues like Malaysia, Thailand, India – and they’re the smaller ones – there’s a lot of Aussie players there, earning a good living. You go to the bigger ones like Japan, Korea, the UAE, and they start earning some serious money. It’s hard to compete with and it’ll take a long-term plan to sort it out.