England deserve place among World Cup favourites - but key questions remain for Gareth Southgate

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·3-min read
England deserve place among World Cup favourites - but key questions remain for Gareth Southgate
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England are among the favourites for the World Cup, less fancied only than holders France and five-time winners Brazil, with most bookmakers following a memorable year.

Gareth Southgate’s side could have been forgiven for suffering a post-Euros hangover, but their upward trajectory has continued with a seven-game unbeaten run in qualifying.

Their only blips were 1-1 draws against Hungary, who showed their steel during the Euros, and Robert Lewandowski’s Poland, and they confirmed their place in Qatar with a record-breaking 10-0 rout of San Marino on Monday night, with Harry Kane scoring four times to move within five goals of Wayne Rooney’s all-time record England tally of 53.

Southgate, who is expected to mark qualification by agreeing a two-year contract extension, has world-class players in almost every position and one of the deepest talent pools in international football, constantly being refreshed by a conveyor-belt of young stars.

Arsenal pair Aaron Ramsdale and Emile Smith Rowe, who was among the scorers on Monday night, were the latest to make their full debuts here in Serravalle in a one-sided match which felt largely pointless and at odds with the spirit of the World Cup.

Southgate’s achievements in improving England’s mentality, reducing the burden of the shirt and rebuilding the connection with supporters have already been much heralded, and his side’s ruthlessness was further evidenced by their biggest win since a 10-0 victory over the USA in 1964, even if Monday night’s match quickly felt more about records, notably those concerning Kane, than qualification.

No other international side has reached the final four of their last two major tournaments, but Southgate is still to prove he can drag England over the line against the best opponents and concerns remain.

His innate conservatism and in-game management appeared to cost England in defeats to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final and the heartbreaking loss to Italy in the Euros final in July. Croatia’s Zlatko Dalic and Italy coach Roberto Mancini were quicker to react as England were pegged back after taking an early lead.

Captain Harry Kane scored four goals as England sealed a record-breaking 10-0 victory over San Marino (The FA via Getty Images)
Captain Harry Kane scored four goals as England sealed a record-breaking 10-0 victory over San Marino (The FA via Getty Images)

Italy’s triumph appeared further proof that solidity is the key to tournament success, but there is a sense that international football may be evolving towards the highly-structured possession approach of the club game, which could leave Southgate’s England, who for all their talent remain solid rather than spectacular, behind.

After the Euros semi-final win over Denmark, there was much fanfare at the way Southgate’s side ran down the clock with 53 patient passes in two-and-a-half minutes against their exhausted, 10-man opponents, with the sped-up footage doing the rounds on social media. But can England control the ball like that for 30 minutes or even a half, like the great sides?

Keeping possession for the sake of it remains a curiously un-English trait and Southgate’s squad is still missing a player who can receive the ball in tight spots and keep it, while dictating the tempo. Jude Bellingham will likely break into the XI before Qatar, although he is more of a box-to-box player than a potential Luka Modric, Marco Veratti or Jorginho.

The circumstances of next winter’s World Cup will also pose huge logistical problems, and Southgate has already admitted he will need the co-operation of clubs, with the Premier League season due to pause a little over a week before the start of the tournament.

Form and fitness will be even greater considerations than usual in naming a squad, but Southgate can take encouragement from the fact that Kane and Harry Maguire, among others, have appeared able to shrug off their poor domestic form while in an England shirt this season.

Southgate now has six matches to fine-tune his side for the challenge of going all the way in Qatar. Many questions remain unanswered but he can point to steady progress since Russia 2018, which suggests England are among the favourites for good reason.

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