England expects but doubts over Gareth Southgate’s ability to lead the country to World Cup glory have never been greater than in the build-up to Qatar.
Four years ago the waistcoat-clad head coach led the national team on a run to the semi-finals in Russia that was as remarkable as it was surprising.
The following summer England won bronze at the inaugural Nations League finals in Portugal and last year the men’s national team got closer to glory than at other any time since 1966.
A solid base provided the platform for a run to the European Championship final against Italy at Wembley, where penalties proved an all too familiar roadblock to success.
It was a case of so close yet so far for Southgate’s Three Lions, who head to the Gulf next week on a winless run that is longer than any predecessor heading into a major tournament.
June’s Nations League defeats away and home to Hungary bookended draws against Germany and Italy, with September’s loss at the latter in Milan followed by a spirited 3-3 draw with the former under the Wembley arch.
The fight shown in that draw was too little too late in terms of the Nations League as relegation to the second tier had already been confirmed, plus it extended their winless run to a sixth match.
Not since 1993 have England endured such a fruitless spell, leading unparalleled pressure to mount on internally popular, if externally divisive, Southgate.
The last World Cup was seen as a free hit for the largely unproven manager and his callow selection, but last summer’s successful run to the final of the rearranged Euros raised expectations.
Only Brazil, Argentina, holders France and Spain are currently shorter odds with the bookmakers to lift the trophy at Lusail Stadium on December 18, meaning the pressure is on Southgate and his players to succeed.
The England boss sprung a surprise when ending James Maddison’s three-year absence but will largely lean on a settled 26-man squad for Qatar, thanks in no small part to the unprecedented scheduling and associated challenges.
Southgate is fortunate that full-backs Reece James and Ben Chilwell are so far the only enforced absentees, but there remain questions over the form and fitness of important players like Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips.
The Three Lions boss – a veteran of four senior tournaments as a player and two as manager – looks set to plump for a three-man backline in Qatar, just as he went with in Russia four years ago.
The composition of his midfield and attack has yet to click and led to accusations of playing with the handbrake on, but in reigning Golden Boot winner Harry Kane there is a star name to spearhead the side as skipper.
Many see getting out of Group B is seen as a given, but that mindset cannot seep into the squad given Iran, the USA and Wales is actually the hardest pool in terms of average FIFA rankings.
— England (@England) November 10, 2022
The Three Lions will be hoping progress is sealed before the final group game against Robert Page’s Welsh side, when memories of their last major tournament tussle against their neighbours should ground them.
England’s last-gasp group triumph against Wales in Lens provided the only highlight of a wretched Euro 2016 campaign for Roy Hodgson’s team, whereas Chris Coleman’s men recovered to reach the semi-finals.
An early exit this time will surely draw the curtain on Southgate’s time as manager, despite the contract he signed last year taking him through the 2024 European Championship in Germany.
The 52-year-old has repeatedly said he does not want to outstay his welcome and understands better than anyone the pressures that come with representing the national team.
Hopes are high heading to the Qatar and, as Southgate knows, England expects.