A good Gazball ship sails calmly.
England are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup against France after beating Senegal 3-0 at the Al Bayt Stadium. They had to negotiate murky waters early on, but then broke Senegal twice on the break at the end of the first half. The ease with which they managed the game in the second half, scoring the third goal, making changes, conserving energy, no drama, no fuss, was a sign of Southgate’s steady hand on the steering wheel.
If you’re looking for something more definitive, you’ll have to wait. Because this win didn’t show anything 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 its best. So far so Gareth.
Waiting for a clearer answer takes less than a week. Is this really true? Is this really new? Is English really good? Or is this all just a coincidence of a nice guy, good players and an easy bet? All of this will be answered in the biggest litmus test of all time, here on Saturday night against France. A game that already feels so big that you can barely see its edges up close.
Lose it and England will fly home honorable quarter-finalists. It feels like 2002 or 2006, and the question is whether the Southgate era has passed, whether England have returned to the mean and need a fresh start. Overcome it, though, and anything is possible. Win that and they will surely be hoping to be in the World Cup final in less than two weeks.
For now, these are still well-charted waters. What was so striking here was how different this felt to England’s last win at this stage. Anyone who was at his last under-16 World Cup against Colombia at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium in 2018 will remember that night of emotional exhaustion and late-night dread. It was – we can say with the distance of time – a really terrible game. England was nervous, Colombia cynical. England should have won it, then blown it, then almost lost it in extra time and then almost lost it on penalties, but somehow got over the line at the end.
It was a huge achievement at the time, the first time England had won the knockout stage at a major tournament since beating Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup when Tony Blair was prime minister and David Beckham captained England. . In fact – and Southgate admitted this again this week – winning the play-offs was England’s main objective in Russia, and everything else was a bonus.
England is in a different place now. It was their sixth relegation win under Southgate. And so this had a routine quality that made it almost unrecognizable from Moscow’s draining night. That game was a marathon. This was over at the end of the first half. That night exhausted England’s players so much that it hindered their performances in subsequent games. Tonight, Southgate made five changes, retaining key players ahead of the quarter-finals. In the end it was a walk.
What a welcome back to base camp! 🥳 pic.twitter.com/fFnZE7eZec
– England (@England) December 5, 2022
In that sense, this felt like a victory – 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 high when England win or too low when they don’t. Some people clearly think that Gazball is too cold, too contrived, too rigid, but as a method of guiding England teams through major tournaments, it is more effective than any other method tried before.
What sometimes gets lost with Southgate is his ability to allocate resources. (Remember when Carlos Quieroz memorably demonstrated on the eve of the tournament how this England team, unlike any other, “takes a realistic approach to every game”.) Sometimes they can win a game with wild plays, sometimes they win it. from wide, sometimes running from behind. Today they won it with Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson breaking through the middle of the pitch.
You could say it was just Senegal and Senegal without Sadio Mane or Idrissa Gueye. This is of course true. But tournament football isn’t played on paper, and many other teams with a lot of talent have fallen into difficult waters recently. Look at Germany, the big tournament pros who were knocked out of the last two World Cups at the group stage. Southgate is the master navigator of these games, which is why England’s record in them is now much better than before.
But there are play-offs and there are play-offs, and of the six that England have won under Southgate, only one of them has come against what could be described as another top team. And it was a last-16 win at the European Championships against Joachim Low’s tired old Germany side, seven years after they won the World Cup, and in Low’s final game.
France will be different. They are not used to being a good team. They are a good team now. They are the reigning world champions. And in Kylian Mbappe, they have one of two men who have played like a god since the start of this tournament. There is no bigger test in world football than them right now: not Spain, not Brazil, not even Lionel Messi’s Argentina. “It’s the biggest test we can face,” as Southgate said afterwards.
Can England handle it? We all know Germany were well on their way when England beat them last year. So can they knock the team off the top of the world?
There are some reasons to be optimistic. England have kept three clean sheets so far, with the only two goals they have conceded coming when Iran already won well in the opening match. (Southgate knows clean games win World Cups: just look at France in 2018). England are starting to find their form in front of goal as well. Twelve goals in four games, eight players, including just one for Kane, and none from the penalty spot. If you want another big improvement from 2018, here’s one. Four years ago, they struggled to score from open play. Now it comes very easily to them.
And yet, despite all that, it was impossible not to watch the first half here and not start to have some worrying thoughts about Mbappe. It took just four minutes for Boulaye Dia to run straight behind Harry Maguire into those big empty spaces behind the English defence. Half a dozen times in the first half, Maguire or John Stones – usually so skilled with the ball – gave it straight back to Senegal. If Mane had played in England, he would have been punished for sure. If Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele benefit from those rounds on Saturday, they will not hesitate to take the game away from England. If Stones and Maguire are this sloppy on Saturday, it will be game over at half time.
Which does not mean that England will definitely lose. The game feels weighted in France’s favor because of their experience and Mbappe, but not by much.
It offers something we’ve been looking for with England for years: a glimpse of a clear answer at the end of a long run as to whether or not this is the end of their horizon.
(Photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)