England, Southgate prosper thanks to work of Guardiola, Pochettino & Co.
There are always a lot of theories around the England team in the buildup to major tournaments. From around 2002, it was that "the golden generation were too good to fail." Then after 2010, it was, "Hey, maybe a lack of expectation might help." Then from 2014, a group of young, talented players was coming through who were "free from the scars of previous failures."
Ultimately, the ideas that looked good on paper turned out to be not so great on grass, but before the practical demonstration, the only thing we have is the theory. So here's another one.
Over the past couple of years, a handful of the best, most energetic young (relatively speaking) coaches in the world have worked at the top end of the Premier League. Pep Guardiola won the title in phenomenal fashion with Manchester City. Despite this season's struggles, Antonio Conte did similarly with Chelsea in 2016-17. Jurgen Klopp took Liverpool to the Champions League final with their most exciting team in years. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham's players have improved and punched significantly above their weight for three seasons.
English players might not be the most important performers in all of those teams, but the England squad does feature 13 players from those four clubs, seven of whom are likely starters for their first World Cup game against Tunisia on June 18.
So could spending the past few years with those coaches be the ideal preparation for Gareth Southgate's team as they travel to Russia? You only have to listen to the Manchester City players to get an understanding of how their games have been improved by Guardiola.
"He's taught me so much," Kyle Walker said this week, after England met up for their pre-tournament preparations. "That's what the manager does: He makes you believe that you're the best player in the world, and he gives you that confidence."
Walker was signed as an attacking right-back but is likely to start for England as part of a back three. It's clearly not his preferred position, but he's become much more of an all-round player under Guardiola, thus able to cope with the transition.
The City defender spoke about how Guardiola has improved his "football intelligence" through "hours of training" and studying numerous DVDs in order to work on his positioning.
"It's the understanding of the game," Walker said. "When to go forward, when not, when to keep the ball -- I think we [Manchester City] do that fantastically well. We tire people out. We've scored so many late goals and crucial goals, because sooner or later they get mentally tired and that's when we punish them."
Raheem Sterling spoke in similar fashion back in March about how small tweaks to his game, suggested by Guardiola, have helped him have the best season of his career. "I would be controlling [the ball] with the outside of my foot, slowing the ball down," Sterling said. "He's telling you to get to the left-back quicker, open your body out and take it with you instead of just controlling it and stopping... it gets the rhythm going again.
"Before, I was more raw. When I got the ball, I wanted to take someone on, beat someone. Now I am trying to pick my moments. If it's on, it's on, but if it's not, then I try to get in the box as much as I can."
Pochettino has had a significant impact on Tottenham's English players as well, with Harry Kane turning into one of the best strikers in the world under his tutelage. "I learnt a lot in that short time," Kane said of his early days working with the Argentine in "Brave New World," Guillem Balague's book with/about Pochettino. "Certain movements, for instance. He was a defender himself so he knows what the striker should be doing to gain an edge.
"He wants to play that high intensity, he wants runners in behind. ... I knew straightaway that if I wanted to play in his team I would have to learn that quickly and adapt."
Eric Dier, who arrived at Spurs in the same summer as Pochettino, has said he's "a completely different person" to before he moved there, playing at "a different intensity." Dele Alli said he "owes a lot" to Pochettino after receiving his first senior England call-up. Such praise could go on.
The eternal problem for an international manager is the lack of time with his players, which minimises the opportunity for preparation. The simple solution to that is for club coaches to pick up the slack and unintentionally prepare Southgate's players for the World Cup.
Southgate's job is to get the most from the resources available to him, which not only means the quality of players but harnessing the work those players have done with their coaches over the past couple of years. He also seems to be willing to not just passively take advantage of that, but involve them more actively, too.
"He's very enthusiastic and he also listens to us as much as we listen to him," Walker said of Southgate. "He knows that sometimes when you're on the field it's completely different to when you're on the touchline. When we're playing, we might sense something he hasn't and we might say, 'Gaffer, this guy is causing a problem, we need to change something.'
"He'll listen, and if he thinks we're right, we'll sort it out. If he thinks we're wrong, we'll probably get told to shut up and 'Do what I say!'"
This is obviously no guarantee of success in Russia, but this is an England squad that has essentially been prepared by some of the world's finest coaches. And that can't hurt their chances.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.