Patience – that’s what Gareth Southgate called for in his press conference on the eve of England’s first match at the 2022 World Cup.
You could see that the appeal was aimed at England fans as well as its players, who have to face Iran. A small tool, which will disappoint and confuse.
However, don’t expect the England manager to abandon the caution that has served his side so well in the last two major tournaments.
England’s opening game in the Russia World Cup four years ago was described by the media as a “stuttering start”, “lackluster” and “uninspiring”.
Harry Kane scored a stoppage-time winner in Volgograd against Tunisia to secure a 2-1 win over the 23rd-ranked side in the FIFA rankings. But, interestingly, they won. And this was the start of England’s best run in the World Cup finals for more than half a century.
Iran are in a better third position now, than Tunisia were before and if you give Southgate something uninteresting but effective in the opening Group B game, he will take your hand off it. This first game in England is all about results, and avoiding injuries to key players.
The naturally conservative Southgate will be well aware of the pitfalls if they lose. Teams with no points after the opening group stage usually struggle to progress. They have no training ground, and need to win their last two games to ensure they qualify. Four points, and it’s a lottery if you get to the knocking stairs.
You know that in his mind, even if he doesn’t admit it publicly – Southgate will feel the draw is not a bad result. The USA and Wales (in particular) will present a bigger challenge – especially given the ongoing turmoil in Iran, and the impact on the national football team.
The most important question regarding Southgate’s tactics is that of formation. Privately, England boss and assistant Steve Holland are happy with the idea that playing with three players at the back is inappropriate, and not attacking enough.
And while it’s possible that’s the strategy they’ll use against Iran, it’s possible they’ll opt for a back four, to find another player in the middle – and that player could be Jude Bellingham.
The idea that Southgate could change his defensive style to accommodate the 19-year-old is surprising. But it’s also a fitting description of Bellingham’s performance this season – 23 appearances for Borussia Dortmund, many as captain, is proof of that.
The four players at the back would allow the manager of England to achieve three important goals in one: get an extra player on the field, use Bellingham’s game, strength and real ability in defense and attack, and – with difficulty – find Kalvin Phillips during the game itself. they need it a lot.
The Manchester City midfielder underwent shoulder surgery in September, and has played less than 70 minutes of football this season.
For a man who has been in England’s run to the final of the Euros, and for whom Southgate has excelled alongside proven starter Declan Rice, that is a concern.
Southgate will need Phillips a full-back in the crucial games ahead, so getting him some minutes on the pitch now is essential. This can be done, however, by bringing him after the game hour, for example.
And we must remember that this is the first World Cup where five substitutes are allowed. This means that Southgate can change half of his players in a game, and it means that the starting eleven he chooses is less important than it has been.
It also means that whoever chooses to start up front alongside Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane (both of whom have been nailed) will be asked to perform well, and keep the opposition in check.
This could mean either Bukayo Saka or Mason Mount forming the third of the attacking trio – both of whom have a defensive presence and have been successful in dealing with Southgate’s foul play in passing games.
Whether it’s a back three or a back four that Southgate chooses, Harry Maguire is likely to be at the center of that defence. This may be controversial, given his lack of games at Manchester United and his confidence, which has not been helped by the defender who cost England a goal against Germany at Wembley eight weeks ago.
England’s disastrous Nations League campaign means they are without a win in six games – the team’s worst run of results since Southgate took charge.
He will be desperate to end that unbeaten run at this World Cup, and if England manage to do so, faith – among players and fans alike – will no doubt return quickly.