England and Gareth Southgate need a statement World Cup win just a week after their last one

Date published: Tuesday 29th November 2022 7:27 - Ian King

England manager Gareth Southgate

The good vibes surrounding England after beating Iran lasted one game and now Southgate the team needs to repeat a statement they’d already made.

 

It’s been a World Cup of two halves so far for the England manager Gareth Southgate. After all the concerns over their form this year in the build-up to this tournament, his team excelled in their opening game against Iran, taking their chances against somewhat limited opposition and eventually recording their second biggest win in a World Cup finals match. The handbrake, we were reassured, had been taken off. There was inevitable talk of warning shots having been fired and gauntlets being thrown down.

The atmosphere could not have been much more different by the end of their second match against the USA. With a somewhat drab goalless draw in the bank, the minimum requirement had been fulfilled. A point had been claimed, meaning they need only avoid a drubbing in their final group game against Wales to qualify for the next round, but that confounded handbrake seems to have been put firmly back on. Shots not fired. Gauntlets put back in (large) pockets.

When viewed solely from a statistical standpoint, England’s performance against the USA was fine. They created the same number 0f  chances, of which more were on target, completed 150 more passes (and with a higher degree of accuracy), conceded fewer fouls and didn’t pick up any potentially troubling yellow cards. The USA may have rattled the England crossbar, but on paper it wasn’t quite the disaster it seemed to those watching it live.

The problem is that football isn’t played on paper or on spreadsheets. England’s poor form over the course of the last seven months hadn’t left Southgate with a huge amount of credit in the bank, and people saw what they saw on Friday. With the match scheduled for peak time on a Friday evening, the biggest television audience of the tournament (18m) tuned in to watch. That’s a lot of casual football fans who may well feel as though they wasted a couple of hours on Friday night. Small wonder there was unhappiness in the air.

This sort of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde two-facedness to the England team is part of what makes the job so difficult in the first place. On the one hand, the popularity boom that Southgate experienced – particularly during the 2018 World Cup – was unlike anything that an England manager has ever seen in this country before. But on the other, in a social media-obsessed age, the capacity for people to say the maddest things appears just about unbridled, up to and including the incredible idea that England should sack him before the Wales game.

The USA performance was not brilliant and everybody could see that, but if there’s one thing this tournament has been so far, it’s inconsistent. Germany were diabolical against Japan and significantly improved against Spain, who in turn looked frightening against Costa Rica, who in turn were much improved against Japan, who played far worse than they did against Germany. Argentina were woeful against Saudi Arabia and much improved against Mexico. Even France, who absolutely sparkled in their opening game against Australia, made hard work of beating Denmark in their second game.

So England only need to avoid a drubbing to progress but Gareth Southgate needs more. This is Wales, a team supremely motivated to beat England. If Southgate does want to send a message back home, then beating these local rivals convincingly in a match of significance would certainly do that. And while it’s fair to say that, yes, it’s the result that matters and that yes, the nature of these ‘local derby’ international matches against highly motivated teams is that England tend to huff and puff, at this stage in this particular World Cup there is a need to send that statement.

And people do seem to have short memories. In 2018, England needed a stoppage-time goal from Harry Kane to secure a 2-1 win. At Euro 2020, the team scored just twice in their three group games – a 1-0 win against Croatia, a goalless draw against Scotland and another 1-0 win against the Czech Republic. The mood wasn’t any lighter after the Scotland draw than it has been since the USA match, yet they went on to finish a penalty shoot-out from lifting the trophy.

If you’re looking for a team to play sparkling football right the way through the group stages, then England might not be for you. This is the 16th time that they’ve qualified for these finals, and on only occasion did they win all three group games, in Spain in 1982. And those old enough to remember that will also be able to remember that two of those wins – against Czechoslovakia and Kuwait – were nothing to write home about either.

And if you’re reading all of this and thinking, ‘Well, this all sounds rather potty’, you’re probably right. Discourse with any sense of proportion left this particular building many years ago. It matters not a jot that, with two semi-finals and a final in the space of four-and-a-half years, Gareth Southgate is by a country mile the most successful England manager since Alf Ramsey, that only one team has managed maximum points from two games in this World Cup, or that they’re still the joint second-highest goalscorers in the entire tournament behind Spain.

This is England, and everything must be catastrophised or exalted with no middle ground whatsoever. Put simply, it is impossible that Gareth Southgate can be anything other than the greatest manager of all time or an absolutely abject failure. The continual upping of the ante of expectations is that England need to re-make the ‘statement’ against Wales that the players may have felt they made in their opening game against Iran.

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