The manager’s big decisions all came off, as England scored six times to dismantle Iran in their biggest-ever win to open a major tournament, quickly making a mockery of suggestions that this squad has gone stale under the 52-year-old’s steady leadership.
Southgate’s 4-3-3 system and the selections of Bukayo Saka, who scored twice, Raheem Sterling and Harry Maguire were all justified, while his use of the bench — often considered a weakness — was also on point.
Any fears that England would be undercooked, overawed or distracted by off-field issues — including the FA’s controversial pre-match climbdown over captain Harry Kane wearing a rainbow armband — were dispelled in a ruthless display at the Khalifa International Stadium.
The excellent Jude Bellingham, Saka and Sterling made it 3-0 by half-time, and substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish added gloss in the final 20 minutes.
And yet for Southgate’s detractors, here was evidence of what they have been saying all along: that England are better playing on the front foot, when the manager releases the handbrake and unleashes their attacking talent.
Fairly or not, Southgate will now be under pressure to stick to the system against the USA on Friday, Wales next week and into the knockouts rounds, when far more accomplished opponents await.
Certainly, England played with a desire that has been missing this year, and even as the game ticked towards a 24th-minute of stoppages, they were still hungry to inflict further pain on Iran, with substitutes Rashford, Grealish, Callum Wilson and Phil Foden eager to make an impression.
Southgate’s side have previously been too cautious against defensive teams — consider the 0-0 draw with Scotland at Euro 2020 — but full-backs Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier were given licence to push forward, with the former setting up the opening goal for Bellingham after a fine move.
The teenager, though, was the biggest difference, breaking the deadlock with a centre-forward’s header in a breakthrough display.
Bellingham and Declan Rice provided a platform for England’s forwards, but the former is more of an attacking force in his own right than Kalvin Phillips, and can add much-needed midfield goals to Southgate’s side by driving into the No10 position.
If a familiar-looking team has needed freshening up, Bellingham is the answer and England combined familiar qualities — strength at set-pieces, the reliable link-up between Kane and Sterling —with a new-found swagger in possession.
Particularly notable was how well they got players into the Iran box, and it felt significant that Kane was not one of the five scorers, given suggestions that England are too reliant on him for goals.
He finished the game with two assists — a cross that was cleverly volleyed home by Sterling for 3-0 and the pass for Rashford to coolly make it 5-1 — and was able to drop into the pockets of space where he is most effective.
For their part, Iran were supposed to be well-drilled and obdurate, but instead proved surprisingly brittle.
They were not helped by the loss of experienced goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand following a sickening clash of heads in the eighth minute — that he tried to play on raised serious concerns about their application of the concussion protocol — but coach Carlos Queiroz afterwards acknowledged that the game was over by half-time.
The manager also revealed that his young side’s “commitment and concentration” has been affected by the unrest back home, and their refusal to sing the national anthem in a silent protest made England’s refusal to risk a yellow card for Kane by wearing the ‘OneLove’ armband appear particularly gutless.
England vs Iran FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar | Group B Match | 21st November 2022
Southgate afterwards moved to draw a line under the fiasco, urging his squad to “channel their energies” elsewhere, specifically into the football.
The reality is that Southgate is likely to revert to a back-three and a more cautious approach against sterner opposition, possibly for the round-of-16, which could be against Ecuador or Senegal.
The manager has consistently said he wants England to be able to play more than one way, and there is obviously logic to adapting to the opposition and adding an element of protection to the back line, particularly after Maguire was caught out for Iran’s first goal.
The centre-half was too much for Iran to handle in their box, creating Saka’s first with a powerful downward header, but Mehdi Taremi slipped behind him and finished superbly to make it 4-1. In fairness to Maguire, Southgate revealed the defender had complained of feeling ill moments before the goal, and he was quickly replaced, walking straight down the tunnel.
There was less to be concerned about Taremi’s second goal, a soft stoppage-time penalty, after John Stones fouled Morteza Pouraliganji in a crowded box, although it frustrated Southgate, who felt his side had lost focus in the dying minutes.
The inclusion of James Maddison, who was missing against Iran through injury, suggested Southgate was prepared to be more adventurous in Qatar, and the question now for the manager is whether he will stick to this approach or frustrate his critics by continuing to be flexible.
Frankly, he has earned the right to do either, and may be relieved that the football is back to the top of the agenda.