Wwelcome to consider. Global sport has spent much of the last two years in a state of jet lag, battered bubbles and firebreaks, dates that aren’t really dates, events that seem to be happening on the wrong timeline. Well, here comes the centerpiece: Qatar 2022, the non-negotiable, fixed point around which this state of flux has revolved.
Check your pocket watch, still set to standard tournament time, and it’s actually April. The World Cup – cabin crew, seats for landing – is less than two months away. And the introduction begins this week with the Nations League Round of 16, the first steps towards the final in Doha on December 18. When it ends, the season can stumble red-eyed and jittery back through the arrivals and straight onto the Christmas competition list.
For England, the competition opens against Italy in Milan on Friday, followed by Germany’s visit to Wembley three days later. It’s a delicious-looking doubleheader and an unusually urgent prospect on two fronts. First, as a last chance to sort out personnel and tactical issues before the World Cup, which many people, or at least many English people, seem to think Gareth Southgate’s side should be one of the favorites to win.
And secondly, it is the beginning of a wider account of Gareth’s age. It’s been six years now, stretched across two tournaments, one of which was a plastic-plague-ridden affair that started off awesome and ended with a toxic hangover.
During that time, the England squad has been reshaped, exaggerated and elevated to unprecedented heights of (non-trophy) achievement; but also a strange feeling of rage and dissatisfaction. The next 12 weeks could decide which way this thing goes. Southgate has said he will not overstay his welcome. And it’s always a little later than you think.
At this point, it’s time to brush up on some reassuringly familiar questions. Mainly, is England good? What should we reasonably expect from this team – that word is key? And how annoying is the noise (because noise always is) around it?
As always, the answers are related. On Tuesday morning, a national radio station asked if England, who have won just one tournament in 72 years of trying, should consider anything short of winning the World Cup a failure. Hmm. Good question. Let’s break it down, shall we?
England are capable of reaching the quarter-finals, with something more as a bonus. But two things have to happen. First, they need to destroy the surrounding noise. And it’s familiar territory, at least. In many ways, Southgate’s time has been defined by a relentless battle with English delusions, English exceptionalism, the self-sabotage of unrealistic English expectations.
He has won this battle once using his neatest trick, the ability to turn weaknesses into strengths. This applies at the tactical level. The England he inherited could not keep possession and were weak in central defence. Solution: Play seven backs, keep the ball deep in that back of the neck, become impenetrable.
The same thing is achieved, even more importantly, in the realm of feelings, vibrations, energy. The England he inherited was also haughty and brittle. By the time Russia 2018 arrived, he had a team characterized by its rousing, performance humility. We are the most humble. Look at our humility and tremble, for we are England, truly exceptional in our lack of exceptionality. It worked. The players didn’t feel the pressure. The country triumphantly embraced its lack of triumphalism.
The English delusion caught it too. The idea seems to be: since we’re pretty good now, of course we have to be the best. The success of others is an aberration, a departure from some of Arthur’s states of grace. So the fact that England has good players has been translated into an “unstoppable arm of golden talent”. The rare success of reaching the finals of Euro 2020 has become the unforgivable failure of not winning the finals of Euro 2020.
As always, it comes back to questions of scale. England is capable of defeating Italy and Germany. But they are also bottom of their Nations League group without a goal from their opening game. At the same time, the idea of the harvest of generations of talent, the envy of all Europe, simply does not last. Harry Kane is the best player in England, in his position in the top five in the world, but by a margin from the Mbappé-Lewandowski elite. Raheem Sterling, Southgate’s second most effective attacking weapon, left Manchester City to get more starts.
No England goalkeeper is playing in the Champions League. Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka are good young players, but they are unlikely to strike an outright terror in countries with their wide range of talented forwards. Which other elite international teams would consider Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw for a starting spot?
In addition, as a stunning blow to the national psyche, there are other nationalities. The struggle to process it is in many ways the defining battleground of English football, and indeed English culture more broadly. There are teams that just look a level up. Brazil have lost once since the start of 2020. France and Germany are strong. Will England hope to beat Belgium or Portugal or Spain or Argentina?
There is an element of ad hominem to this loss of scale, a personal grievance, driven by a desire to talk down Southgate’s strong record as England manager. Many simply do not like his politics, manners, tactical caution. But Southgate has his flaws. There has been a lack of development, it feels like other teams have learned to struggle with England’s simple game plan.
Every major defeat in his six years – Croatia, Holland, Italy (on penalties) – has come as a result of being outplayed and outplayed late on in tight knockout games, when the best midfield usually wins.
One real point of evolution has been the willingness to launch a more progressive Jude Bellingham. But Bellingham is also 19 years old. And the progressive 4-3-3 lost 4-0 to Hungary last time out.
It seems almost certain that Southgate will retreat to his comfort zone, the football of control and fine details. England need to win or at least avoid defeat next week because it has been hard to win. Mainly they need to create energy, feel good, find that missionary zeal.
Trust the process. At this distance, it’s the only one we can get. And it’s worth saying again. England have reached five semi-finals in 72 years, two of them (two out of two) under Southgate. No matter how the current jet tour ends, these accomplishments will live on.