The good ship Gasball sails quietly on.
England are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup against France after dispatching Senegal 3-0 at the Al Bayt Stadium. They had to negotiate some choppy waters at the start but then cut through Senegal twice on the break at the end of the first half. The ease with which they managed the second half of the game, scoring a third goal, making changes, conserving energy, no drama, no fuss, was a sign of Southgate’s firm hand on the tiller.
If you’re looking for something more definitive, you’ll have to wait. Because the victory showed nothing we didn’t already know about Southgate’s practical, realistic England. This was the England we’ve seen a lot of in recent years, at their effective best. So far, so Gareth.
The wait for a clear answer will take less than one week. Is this really real? Is this really new? Are England really good? Or is it all just a convenient coincidence of a nice person, some good players and some easy draws? All this will be answered in the biggest litmus test of all, back here on Saturday night against France. A game that already feels so big that you can barely see the edges of it up close.
Lose that and England will fly home honest quarter-finalists. It will feel like 2002 or 2006, and the question will be asked whether the Southgate era has run its course, whether England have returned to the middle and need a fresh start. Win that, though, and anything is possible. Win this and they would surely hope to be in the World Cup final less than two weeks from now.
For now, these are still very much charted waters. What was so striking here was how different it felt from England’s last win at this stage. Anyone who attended their last World Cup last-16 tie against Colombia at Spartak Moscow Stadium in 2018 will recall it as an evening of emotional exhaustion and late-night dread. It was – we can say with the distance of time – a truly terrible game. England was nervous, Colombia was cynical. England should have won it, then blown it, then nearly lost it in extra-time, and then nearly lost it on penalties, but somehow got over the line in the end.
It was a huge achievement at the time, the first time England had won a knockout game at a major tournament since they beat Ecuador in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup, back when Tony Blair was prime minister and David Beckham England captain. . In truth – and Southgate admitted this again this week – winning a knockout game was England’s main aim in Russia, and everything else was a bonus.
England is now in a different place. It was their sixth knockout win under Southgate. And so it had a routine quality that was almost unrecognizable from that wild night in Moscow. This game was a marathon. That was over at the end of the first half. That night depleted the England players so much that it inhibited performances in the next games. Tonight Southgate made five changes, preserving his key players ahead of the quarter-final. In the end it was a walk.
What a welcome back to Basecamp! 🥳 pic.twitter.com/fFnZE7eZec
— England (@England) December 5, 2022
In that sense, it felt like a triumph – or at least a reminder – of Southgate’s best qualities. He understands tournament football and what it takes to progress. He thinks clearly about strategies and plans. He doesn’t get too up when England win or too down when they don’t. Some people clearly think that gasball is too cold, too planned, too strict, but as a methodology to guide England teams through major tournaments, it is more effective than any other set of methods that have been tried before.
What sometimes gets lost with Southgate is his powers of resource allocation. (Remember when Carlos Queiroz, on the eve of the tournament, memorably pointed out how this England team, in contrast to others, “take a realistic approach to every game”.) Sometimes they win the game from set pieces, sometimes they win it from wide. , times of running behind. Today they won it through Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson breaking through the middle of the field.
You could say, well, it was only Senegal and Senegal without Sadio Mane or Idrissa Gueye. Of course this is true. But tournament football is not played on paper and many other teams with a lot of talent have sunk into difficult waters recently. Just look at Germany, the big tournament professionals, dumped out of the last two World Cups in the group stage. Southgate is a master navigator of these games, which is why England’s record in them is so much better now than it was.
But there are knockout games and there are knockout games, and of the six that England won under Southgate, only one of them was against what you could describe as another top team. And it was the last 16 win at the Euros against Joachim Low’s tired old Germany team, seven years after they won the World Cup, and in what was Low’s final match in charge.
France will be different. They are not a used-to-be-good team. They are a good team now. They are the reigning world champions. And in Kylian Mbappe they have one of the two men who have played like a god since the start of the tournament. There is no greater test in world football right now than them: not Spain, not Brazil, not even Lionel Messi’s Argentina. “This is the biggest test we can face,” as Southgate put it afterwards.
Will England be up to it? We all know Germany were well on the way down when England beat them last year. So are they able to beat a team from the top of the world?
There are several reasons to be optimistic. England have kept three clean sheets so far and the only two goals they conceded came when Iran had already been well beaten in the opener. (Southgate knows that clean sheets win World Cups: just look at France in 2018). England also started to find their form in front of goal. Twelve goals in four games, scored by eight players, only one of them for Kane, and none of them from the penalty spot. If you want another big improvement from 2018, here is one. Four years ago they struggled to score from open play. Now it comes very easily to them.
And despite all that, it was impossible not to watch the first half here and not start to have some worrying thoughts about Mbappe. It only took four minutes for Boulaye Dia to run straight in behind Harry Maguire, into the large empty spaces behind the England defence. Half a dozen times in the first half Maguire or John Stones – usually so good with the ball – gave it straight back to Senegal. If Mane had played England would certainly have been punished. If Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele benefit from the turnover on Saturday, they will not hesitate to take the game away from England. If Steiner and Maguire are this sloppy on Saturday, the game will be over at halftime.
Which is not to say that England will definitely lose. The game feels weighted in France’s favor, because of their experience and because of Mbappe, but not by much.
What it offers is something we have been looking for with England for years: a glimpse of a clear answer at the end of a long journey, whether it is the end of their horizon or not.
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