FM18 sims how England’s team vs Spain would have fared at the World Cup

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England’s shock 3-2 victory over Spain on Monday night has been met with unbridled optimism by the English press, with numerous match reports musing over whether this was the Three Lions’ greatest ever non-tournament performance.

What made the win so exciting, of course, was the youthfulness of Gareth Southgate’s squad. Injuries and suspensions made 28-year-old Kieran Trippier the only England starter in Spain over the age of 25, perhaps explaining the ecstatic national response.

Which got us thinking. Having shown such maturity and intelligence on Monday, could this young side have performed as well – or better – than the 23 that went to the World Cup in Russia?

The set-up

FM18 doesn’t let you select fewer than 23 players, so in addition to the 20 that were inside the Benito Villamarin on Monday Southgate was given Jordan Henderson and John Stones – both called up, but suspended, for the Spain game – and one other.

We went with Danny Welbeck, who withdrew from the squad four days before the game, because England looked lightest up front.

The only rule was this: one sim only. There are no second chances in life, so why should there be on Football Manager?

We couldn’t edit the tournament ourselves, so the groups are different to real life. England have drawn Wales, Iran, and Argentina in Group B.


Southgate’s squad announcement stunned the nation’s press. No fewer than nine previously uncapped players – that’s 39% – made the plane, including Kieran Trippier and Jordan Pickford (undiscovered during qualifying), as well as youngsters that frankly hadn’t earned their call-ups.

Dele Alli was reportedly devastated not to have made the cut, his absence developing into a national scandal that increased the pressure on Southgate… or at least it should have done, but Southgate’s soothing, patient voice had a strangely hypnotic effect, and like that school teacher who takes you under his wing, he convinced us all to fall in line.

Consecutive 2-0 warm-up wins over Colombia and Mexico strengthened his argument.

Group Stage

England v Wales

It’s happening all over again: the shame of letting yourself believe this time it could be different was setting in, the predictability of the disappointment making it all the more tedious, and painful.

England are 1-0 down to Wales, who made it to Russia via a 3-0 play-off victory over Slovakia, with two minutes on the clock. Chris Coleman looks nervous, Southgate stoic, his only tell a rhythmic rubbing of the mouth with his right hand.

“England could really use Dele here,” says Ally McCoist, unhelpfully.

But then Eric Dier rises highest from a corner and England are level. The sense of relief is exhausting. The game ends 1-1, and Southgate’s bold experiment survives the worst of the wrath.

You can’t help but feel sorry for the Welsh, who lose to Argentina and beat Iran only to go out with four points. Dier is the most hated man in Wales for the next 25 years.

England 1-1 Wales

England v Iran

It’s win or bust for England against an uber-defensive Iranian side that only lost 1-0 to Argentina, courtesy of a first-minute Lionel Messi goal. Natural English cynicism kicks in with collective nightmares of tedious 0-0 draws.

Fears rise when Southgate, ever the maverick, announces a switch to 4-3-3 with Trent Alexander-Arnold suddenly in central midfield alongside Harry Winks.

It turns out to be precisely the game we had anticipated, until in the 19th minute Kyle Walker swings in a speculative cross. Harry Kane goes down. It looks soft, but it’s given, and Kane smashes the penalty down the middle.

The commentators seem a little awkward. At half-time Gary Neville refuses to say the D word, but he spends an awfully long time frowning at the desk before responding: “It didn’t look good.”

The second half is just as much of a slog for England, who simply haven’t turned up at this tournament yet – that is until substitute Danny Welbeck, fresh from the fairy-tale of Arsenal’s Premier League win (don’t ask) picks up the ball on the halfway line, runs past two Iran players on his way to the byline and puts in a looping cross.

The goalkeeper clearly barges Kane out the way and the England striker again thumps a penalty down the middle. That’ll do. Just.

England 2-0 Iran

England v Argentina

There are moments in football that will stay with you forever, and, for those 23 little pixel blobs, June 26 is one such day. On the verge of pathetic elimination Southgate switches to 4-2-3-1, swaps Eric Dier for Trent and puts Welbeck in from the start – and the Three Lions click like never before.

Raheem Sterling and Welbeck are outrageous from the flanks, each earning a hat-trick of assists as England pummel the Argentines, everything they touch turning to gold on a wild, impossible night at the Rostov Arena.

Six shots on target, six goals. Six. Six-one England.

All six England goals are bizarrely similar, the Argentine back three failing to learn from their mistakes as Welbeck and Sterling get round the outside again and again, repeating the simple trick like they’re playing a computer game with a glitch.

Kane drops deep and sprays it wide, one winger crosses and Kane is there to score. The Spurs striker ends up with four and Welbeck the other two.

Southgate is hoarse in the presser afterwards, his cries for concentration and perspective hopeless at a time like this. Ian Wright can’t stop laughing. Roy Keane slowly shakes his head. Fans across England flood the streets. A right-wing politician mentions the Falklands and ruins it a bit.

England 6-1 Argentina

Round of 16: England v Ivory Coast

A switch has definitely been flipped. Southgate can’t do wrong, here re-selecting Alexander-Arnold in central midfield as the Liverpool right-back scores twice and wins man of the match in a routine England win.

The Ivorians, scraping through the groups with a single win against Honduras, were never likely to put up much resistance.

Alexander-Arnold’s first is a 20-yard thunderb*stard less than two minutes into the match, the beauty of it and the earliness jolting even the most pessimistic England fan with a sudden rush of belief that this team are unstoppable.

When the same player goes clean through on goal and smashes it home on 20, it’s one of those delirious beer-soaked moments in the pub that defy logic. This can’t be real life. It can’t be.

Complacency sets in, and Ivory Coast score twice in the second half to bring it back to 2-2 – which simply gives England another chance for implausible drama: Joe Gomez hits an 87th minute volley from the edge of the D into the top corner, and then Marcus Rashford adds a fourth in stoppage time.

For the third game running Harry Winks quietly runs the show, his metronomic passing making him the hipsters’ choice.

England 4-2 Ivory Coast

Quarter Final: England v Brazil

Are England actually any good? That’s the hesitant story emerging in the build-up to facing Brazil.

The Ivorians shouldn’t have come that close, while Argentina’s 5-5 draw with Russia (who won on penalties) in the second round – already debated among historians as arguably the greatest World Cup game of all time – proves the recklessness of Jorge Sampaoli’s team.

Here was proof. Proof that England are the real deal, proof that Welbeck – “Our Welbz” – is in the pantheon of modern greats.

It’s another early goal for the Three Lions as Rashford puts Welbeck through for a simple finish, although this time the celebrations back home are as muted as Southgate’s. Visions of Michael Owen’s opener against Brazil in 2002, the highlights of which have been replayed a million times on TV these last days, are fresh in the mind.

Brazil put England under immense pressure and eventually we cave, a Dani Alves cross just after an hour finished with a glancing header from Neymar.

It looks as though they’ll only be one winner, but with 12 minutes on the clock England see a rare chance to break out from their shell. Sterling is released down the right, and with a drop of the shoulder is past the last line of defence with two England players hurtling into the box.

No prizes for guessing who it falls to. It is hard to believe there was ever a time when we doubted Danny Welbeck.

Victory is stolen and Neymar is in tears. Joy of joys.

England 2-1 Brazil

Semi-final: England v Colombia

Waistcoats, waistcoats, everywhere. England fans never dreamed of getting this far, but now… well, it’s England, Colombia, Uruguay, or Russia to lift the trophy after a miraculous, scarcely believable World Cup of shocks.

The phrase “It’s England’s to lose” is first uttered by Pele in the aftermath of the quarter-finals and it soon catches on. Southgate won’t be drawn, of course, but he knows. We know he knows. The draw has changed everything, and, for the first time in Russia, England aren’t the underdogs.

Yes, Colombia beat France and yes, they’ve won all six of their matches. But this is England and it’s coming home. It has to come home now: the journey has been too heroic, too precious, to all be for nothing.

The 90 minutes swims by in a blur. What happened? England started nervously and just couldn’t find a foothold, the players clearly burnt out after Southgate selected the same starting XI for the fourth game in a row.

Everyone was too caught up in the fever to notice the rookie’s mistakes, to notice these young lads were tiring. Colombia’s first goal was a simple header on the half-hour mark. The second, a cruelly deflected volley, bobbled over the line on 56.

Southgate made a triple substitution, betraying a desperation that spoke to what everyone felt: the outcome was already determined. The whistle blows. Sterling’s in bits. Welbeck stoops to help him up. They are both heroes, and yet…

England are out.

England 0-2 Colombia

Third-place playoff: England v Uruguay

Who cares? Do you care? Of course not. Kane scores, for the record, but at the ceremony he tears the bronze medal off his neck in disgust.

England 1-0 Uruguay

Final Assessment

More experienced heads might have kept their cool in the semis, and it was a lack of rotation that ultimately let Southgate down, a decision probably made because of the number of uncapped lads warming the bench.

England come home as heroes, having kick-started a brighter future for the side and brought the nation together at a time of deep political turmoil.

We’ll always have the memories – the 6-1, Trent’s screamer, Our Welbz – and yet these moments now appear in the mind with a gloss of foreboding, the heartbreak now woven into the images of hope and promise.

Sound familiar?

By Alex Keble

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