Tawards the top of Gareth Southgate’s post-match press convention, deep within the harshly lit fiberglass bunker that’s the Al Bayt Stadium media suite, England’s supervisor was once requested by means of an Argentinian journalist for his ideas at the prospect down the observe of getting to stand Lionel Messi. “Well,” Southgate frowned, creating a display of giving the query all due attention. “He’s a good player.” As super-dry wee-hours press room one-liners move, it was once lovely just right.
After that Southgate simply more or less shrugged and mentioned one thing like, yeah, he is a genius however we will fear about that if it occurs. England need to play France first within the quarter-final on Saturday. Their handiest likelihood of going through Messi at Qatar 2022 can be to achieve the overall, lower than two weeks and 3 conceivable video games from now.
Progress has been tidy to this point towards warring parties that experience ranged from now not excellent, to reasonably just right, to in reality now not excellent in any respect, to Senegal’s decent-ish. But the elements is now transferring. France wait. And issues are about to get actual.
Before then Southgate has a second to really feel some due pleasure at England achieving their par stage at this World Cup. However this ends now there can be no crisis, no humiliation, no shrieking and wailing from the refrain at England’s again (NB there’ll in fact be shrieking and wailing, as a result of there will have to be, however handiest from probably the most entrenched, the perimeter components, broadsheet soccer writers and different extremist components).
The fact is England have now hit their stage. If it’s applicable to match this World Cup to the Premier League – and we would possibly as neatly, as a result of that looked to be going down till a couple of moments in the past – then England are the Tottenham Hotspur of Qatar 2022 (fourth position ultimate 12 months, Kane+, now not gained anything else for many years).
Beating a depleted Senegal was once like Spurs beating Wolves. Good however you more or less anticipated it. The US have been Brighton, spiky, tough, an appropriate 0-0. Wales have been Southampton. Iran have been Norwich.
England/Spurs have completed a just right however unremarkable task of having previous those groups. But now Super Saturday is beginning to loom. Spurs will now play Liverpool, supercharged however mildly incorrect warring parties; a sport they are not anticipated to win, however which is able to nonetheless raise a skein of hope.
This is a superb spot to be in; but in addition a tactically troubling prospect given the proof of England’s and France’s 4 video games apiece to this point.
Southgate was once additionally requested the extra related query of the way England are going to deal with Kylian Mbappé working in a super second of Mbappé-ness, a subject matter he dodged by means of speaking as a substitute about how just right Antoine Griezmann is. But one thing will without a doubt have to switch earlier than Saturday’s sport again on the Al Bayt if England hope to transport past secure and commendable development.
First, the excellent news. England got here into this World Cup in a little bit of a large number, besieged by means of goldfish-memory critics, and going through a bunch the place, by hook or by crook – it stays a thriller – each opponent was once ranked the arena’s best 20.
Chuck in Sunday night time’s date with the (depleted) African champions and England have performed 4, gained 3, scored 12 and conceded handiest two times within the messy endgame with Iran. The midfield seems to be fluid and has begun to attain targets. The beginning entrance six towards Senegal featured 4 gamers elderly 23 and underneath.
Looking again additional England have saved blank sheets in 9 in their previous 11 event video games, with 8 wins and 3 attracts. Harry Kane has additionally scored, which is able to ease his hidden however tangible frustrations, the ones moments in the second one part the place Kane involves resemble some unhappy noble cat-rescuing Nineteen Fifties milkman, unthanked however doggedly dutiful. He can be settled now. And he likes those video games.
On the opposite hand there also are some evident flaws, weaknesses that each one 4 warring parties up to now have picked at, and which France would possibly simply rip open.
Senegal regarded as though they have been focused on Harry Maguire within the early moments, setting apart him, urgent top, discovering moments the place the tempo in their entrance 3 may just prey on his glacial turning circle.
There have been additionally 3 events the place Maguire chugged ahead with the ball, a type of steamship Beckenbauer, then gave it away. At least one will have to have resulted in a objective for Senegal. Southgate has talked up Maguire’s skill to hold the ball ahead. Perhaps Maguire now feels this is a part of his locus standi for conserving a place within the workforce.
Against the US he saved launching showy artillery passes, and at one level veered out to the left wing like a damaged dodgem. This looks like a participant looking to have compatibility an summary concept of himself, one fraught with threat. Here is England’s least cell participant successfully opting for to transport himself miles out of place. Ousmane Dembélé and Mbappé will dinner party on the ones areas if Maguire tries this, providing up their very own bespoke VVIP lane to England’s objective.
The different drawback in protection would possibly heal itself with a couple of extra days. Kyle Walker did not glance have compatibility. There is an concept available in the market that England have a participant in a position to matching Mbappé’s foot pace at the similar flank. Not in this proof.
It turns out most likely the moments of vulnerability in all 4 video games up to now will inspire Southgate to modify to his comfort-blanket again 3. This will most probably develop into the battlefield of the impending days, and the persist with which to overcome England in the event that they lose, as they most probably will have to 4 instances out of 5, regardless of the formation.
The again 3 remains to be an comprehensible selection given the defenders Southgate has. Maguire wishes quilt. Walker because the right-sided centre-back and Kieran Trippier out of doors him is some way of now not dropping the sport within the opening 30 minutes.
On the opposite hand even those that worth the result of Southgate’s warning would possibly really feel tempted now by means of the good fortune of the present midfield 3, with its high quality steadiness of strengths. It can be attention-grabbing to look Rice-Bellingham-Henderson/Phillips examined towards the arena champions, if somewhat hair-raising if Maguire begins in a 4, and severely undermined if he drops deep in worry of France’s tempo, as has came about at Manchester United.
Southgate will run those variations, will make the decision in accordance with seeing his gamers up shut, and on correct find out about of England’s warring parties. It is most probably time merely to accept as true with him. And this is some other factor: England have handiest as soon as of their complete World Cup historical past gained a knockout sport towards a workforce that had prior to now gained the event. That was once the 1966 last. England generally tend to win the video games they will have to win, then lose to raised groups: Portugal, Germany, West Germany, Brazil, Uruguay (as global champions). It is an incredibly prosaic fact for a country that considers itself, towards the details, to be a poetically bothered underachiever.
With any actual point of view France will have to principally be a loose hit from this level. But then, in some ways it does not in reality subject what England do now, or how they do it. We are witnessing a type of finish sport, six years into this factor, the dots being joined, the items aligned. We have watched this procedure in motion, have taken our positions. Whatever your view on Southgate (despoiler of ability or delightful and a hit supervisor) it’s not going to switch. Time, now, simply to look at it play out.