England reporter notebook: Southgate to continue cautious pragmatism


Patience – that’s what Gareth Southgate called for in his news conference on the eve of England’s first match at World Cup 2022.

You sensed that plea was aimed as much at England’s fans as his players, who are likely to come up against stubborn Iranian resistance. A low block, that will frustrate and disrupt.

Nevertheless, don’t expect England’s manager to abandon the cautious pragmatism that has served his team 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”, “lacklustre” and “uninspiring”.

Harry Kane scored a stoppage-time winner in Volgograd against Tunisia to grab a 2-1 victory over a team who were ranked 23rd in the FIFA rankings. But, crucially, they won. And that was the start of England’s best run in a World Cup finals for more than half a century.

Iran are ranked three places better now, than Tunisia were back then and if you offered Southgate something similarly uninspiring but effective in this opening Group B match, he would snap your hand off. This first game for England is all about the result, and avoiding injuries to key players.

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Speaking at the Abu Dhabi GP, Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe believes England can win the World Cup in Qatar

The naturally cautious Southgate will be infinitely aware of the pitfalls if they lose. Teams who are point-less after their opening group game often struggle to progress. They have no wriggle room, and have to win their final two matches to guarantee qualification. Four points, and it’s a lottery whether you’ll get to the knockout stages.

You know that in his mind, even if he doesn’t admit it publicly – Southgate will feel a draw isn’t a bad result. USA and Wales (in particular) will offer stiffer challenges – especially considering the turmoil in Iran which is still engulfing the nation, and impacting the national football team.

The key question when it comes to Southgate’s tactics is about formation. Privately, the England boss and his assistant Steve Holland are bemused by the general opinion that playing with three centre-backs is negative, and not attacking enough.

Jude Bellingham celebrates after scoring against Stuttgart for Dortmund

And while it’s a possibility that’s the system they might use against Iran, it could well be that they opt for a flat back four, in order to get an extra player in midfield – and that player would almost certainly be Jude Bellingham.

The thought that Southgate might tweak his defensive formation in order to accommodate a 19-year-old midfielder is extraordinary. But that is an equally apt description of Bellingham’s performances this season – 23 appearances for Borussia Dortmund, many as captain, are testimony to that.

A back four would allow the England manager to achieve three crucial aims in one: get an extra attacking player on the pitch, harness Bellingham’s athleticism, energy and genuine ability in defence and attack, and – crucially – also get Kalvin Phillips the game time that he desperately needs.

England's Jude Bellingham kicks the ball during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Italy and England at the San Siro stadium, in Milan, Italy, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

The Manchester City midfielder underwent shoulder surgery in September, and he has played less than 70 minutes of football all season.

For a man who was ever-present in England’s run to the Euros final, and who Southgate rates so highly alongside the guaranteed starter that is Declan Rice, that’s a worry.

Southgate will want a fully-firing Phillips for the key games to come, and so getting him some minutes on the pitch now is essential. That could, however, be achieved by bringing him on after an hour of the game, for example.

Kalvin Phillips training with England in Qatar

And we should remember that this is the first World Cup where five substitutions are allowed. That means Southgate can change half of all his outfield players during the game, and it means the starting 11 he picks is less fundamental than it was.

It also means that whoever he chooses to start up front alongside Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane (both of whom are nailed-on starters) might well be asked to perform a more disciplined role, with an eye on opposition counter-attacks,

That would point to maybe Bukayo Saka or Mason Mount being the third of the attacking trio – both of whom have defensive nous and have been outstanding in doing the dirty work for Southgate in games gone by.

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Paul Merson and Clinton Morrison explain their starting XIs for England’s opening World Cup game against Iran

Whether it’s a back three or a back four that Southgate chooses, Harry Maguire is almost certain to be the centre of that defence. That will be controversial, considering his lack of game time for Manchester United and his dented confidence, which wasn’t helped by a defensive howler that cost England a goal against Germany at Wembley eight weeks ago.

England’s nightmare Nations League campaign means they haven’t won in six matches – the team’s worst run of results since Southgate took over the reins.

He’ll be desperate to end that winless run straight away in this World Cup, and if England manage to do so, the belief – among the players and the fans – will no doubt quickly return.

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