The good ship Gazball set sail.
England reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup against France after beating Senegal 3-0 at the Al Bayt Stadium. They had to negotiate with some murky waters from the start but then overcame Senegal twice at halftime at the end of the first half. They easily controlled the second half of the game, scored the third goal, made the changes, save energy, no drama, no fuss, which is a sign that Southgate has settled on the wheel.
If you’re looking for something more definitive, then you’ll have to wait. Because this victory shows there’s nothing we don’t know about Southgate’s pragmatic, pragmatic England. This is the UK that we’ve seen so much of over the last few years, at their best. So far, so Gareth.
Waiting for a clearer answer will take less than a week. Is this really true? Is this really new? Is Britain really that good? Or is all of this just a convenient coincidence of a good man, some good players and some easy draws? All of these will be answered in the biggest test of all, back here on Saturday night against France. A game that is inherently so big that you can barely see its edges from up close.
Lose that and England will fly home in the quarter-finals of honor. It will be like 2002 or 2006, and the question will be whether the Southgate era is on its way, whether Britain has returned to normal and needs a fresh start. However, win and everything is possible. Win that and they will certainly hope to be in the World Cup final less than two weeks from now.
For now, these are still heavily ranked waters. What strikes here is that the feeling is different from England’s last win at this stage. Anyone who was in the last 16 of the World Cup against Colombia at Spartak Moscow’s stadium in 2018, will recall an evening of emotional exhaustion and fear in the dead of night. It is – we can say with the gap of time – a truly terrible game. He was worried, Colombia was skeptical. England should have won, but then lost, then almost lost in extra time, then almost lost on penalties, but somehow got the lead in the last minute.
It was a huge achievement at the time, the first time England had won a knockout match at a major tournament since they defeated Ecuador in the round of 16 of the 2006 World Cup, when Tony Blair is also prime minister and David Beckham is England captain. . In fact – and Southgate admitted it again this week – winning the knockout round is England’s main goal in Russia, and everything else is a bonus.
Britain is in a different place now. This is their sixth knockout win under Southgate. And so this has an ordinary quality that makes it almost unrecognizable on that grueling Moscow night. That game is a marathon. This ended at the end of the first half. That night made the English players so exhausted that it affected their performance in the next matches. Tonight, Southgate made five changes, preserving key players ahead of the quarter-finals. In the end, it was a walk.
What a welcome back at basecamp! pic.twitter.com/fFnZE7eZec
– England (@England) December 5, 2022
In that sense, this is like a victory – or at least a reminder – of Southgate’s best qualities. He understands league football and what it takes to progress. He thinks clearly about strategies and plans. He’s not too excited when England win or too frustrated when they don’t. Some people clearly think Gazball is too cold, too planned, too rigid, but as a method of guiding England teams through the major tournaments, it is more effective than any other set of methods. any other method has been tried before.
What is sometimes lost with Southgate is his ability to allocate resources. (Remember that Carlos Quieroz, on the eve of the tournament, memorably pointed out that this England team, in contrast to others, “takes a pragmatic approach in every game.”) Sometimes they win the game from set pieces, sometimes they win. from the outside wide, sometimes from running in the back. They won today thanks to Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson’s breakthrough in the midfield.
You could say, it’s just Senegal, and Senegal doesn’t have Sadio Mane or Idrissa Gueye. This is of course true. But league football is not played on paper and many other teams with a lot of talent have sunk in difficult waters recently. Just look at Germany, the great tournament pros, who have been eliminated in the last two World Cups in the group stage. Southgate is a master operator in these games, which is why England’s record in those games is so much better now than it was in the past.
But there are knockouts and there are knockouts, and of the six games England have won under Southgate, only one has met what you might describe as a top team. other head. And it was Joachim Low’s last-16 win at the Euros over tired old Germany, seven years after they won the World Cup, and it was Low’s last game.
France will be different. They are not a team that used to be good. They are a good team now. They are the reigning world champions. And in Kylian Mbappe, they have one of two who have played like a god since the beginning of this tournament. There is no challenge in world football right now greater than them: not Spain, not Brazil, not even Lionel Messi’s Argentina. “It was the biggest test we could face,” as Southgate later said.
Will the UK do that? We all know that Germany fell when England beat them last year. So can they knock out a top team in 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 were beaten in the opener. (Southgate knows how to keep a clean sheet to win the World Cup: just look at France in 2018). The England team has also begun to find form in front of goal. 12 goals in 4 games, scored by 8 players, only 1 by Kane, and none from the penalty spot. If you want another big improvement from 2018 this is it. Four years ago, they had difficulty scoring from open play. Now it comes to them very easily.
And despite all this, it was impossible not to watch the first half here and not start having anxious thoughts about Mbappe. It only took four minutes for Boulaye Dia to run straight behind Harry Maguire, into the big gap behind the English defence. Half a dozen times in the first half, Maguire or John Stones – usually very good at holding the ball – paid Senegal straight. If Mane had started England, he would have been punished. If Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele benefit from those rotations on Saturday, they will not hesitate to rule out England. If Stones and Maguire are this sloppy on Saturday, the game will be over at half-time.
That doesn’t mean England will definitely lose. The game seems to favor France, because of their experience and because of Mbappe, but not much.
What it offers is what we have been looking for with Britain for many years: a glimpse of the clear answer at the end of a long journey, whether this is the end of their horizon or not.
(Photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)