Might this World Cup, with its condensed preparation time, play right into the hands of “functional, practical, realistic” Gareth Southgate?
When Iran coach Carlos Queiroz talks about English football, it’s abundantly clear the former Manchester United coach retains a huge love of and fondness for the way the game is played on These Shores.
When he speaks about English football and specifically about his Iran side starting their World Cup campaign against England, there’s a glint in his eye. He cannot wait for this game, and there are few with greater affection for the English game.
“Their players play with rhythm, intensity. Not like Spanish or Portuguese, obsessed by ball possession.
“The intensity, the way they play the game, with direct idea, to put the ball in the net. If I choose one kind of player to go to war…”
And it is in that spirit that he offered what might just be the most perfect summary of Gareth Southgate’s England we’ve yet heard.
“In my opinion it’s probably the most talented, most competitive England team since 1966.
“This team it is very functional, very practical, very realistic. This team makes a realistic approach to every single game.”
We’ve included the first sentence there (even though it might be a touch over the top in our less-valid opinion) because it feels necessary to make it abundantly clear that what follows is meant only as the highest praise.
Because I don’t think anyone can argue with “functional, practical, realistic” as a three-word description of Southgate’s philosophy – we hesitate to use the word ‘Gazball’ but know deep down we’re powerless to resist.
“Very functional, very practical, very realistic.”
That is exactly what England are. That is precisely what Gazball is.
Yet while Queiroz means it as a huge compliment, it could just as easily be used by his critics. By those who dislike his occasionally excessive loyalty to trusted lieutenants. By those who bemoan his fondness for five at the back and a double-pivot in front. By those who had got themselves pre-emptively worked up about him not picking James Maddison in the squad and who are now getting pre-emptively worked up about him not picking James Maddison in the team. Injury schminjury.
Functional, practical, realistic England are a team very much in the image of their functional, practical, realistic manager.
Southgate knew that realistically there was nobody knocking down the door he would trust more in England’s defence than Maguire, regardless of his club travails.
Practical Southgate acknowledged that whatever his misgivings about Maddison, his form for Leicester had gone well beyond a point that demanded his inclusion.
Functional Southgate likes his back five and/or his two defensive midfielders because realistically and practically he doesn’t have a way of feeling secure with fewer defensive-minded players.
It feels extremely Southgate that the two selections in his squad that most resembled a gamble were picking a defender closing in on 50 caps whose two previous major tournaments have seen England reach a semi-final and a final, and picking the only pure No. 10 available to him who has scored seven goals and created four more in a struggling Leicester side.
None of these thoughts on Southgate or his team are particularly new or different, but what is new and different is this tournament.
We don’t need to go over it all again, but the fact is that preparation time for this World Cup has been largely non-existent. The only team with a proper build-up together was Qatar, and they’re crap.
Everyone else is largely winging it. At the very least, everyone is taking a huge step into the unknown in more ways than one in this rushed, congested, mid-season World Cup.
And that feels like something that can benefit teams at opposite ends of the spectrum. At one, those teams with the most explosive individual talent, those players whose brilliance puts them less in thrall to the team dynamic. At the other, those with the most straightforward plans and ideas.
One way or another this will likely be Gareth Southgate’s last major tournament as England manager, and there’s arguably never been one before and perhaps never will again that’s better suited to those qualities Queiroz identified. Functional. Practical. Realistic.
It might just be that this tournament’s fundamental flaw plays into England’s hands. That doesn’t mean they’re about to win the whole thing, but it might well mean they prove more effective than many of the gloomier prognoses suggest.
Either that or they’re about to get all hot and bothered, draw 1-1 against Iran and should all come home in disgrace while a mischievous tabloid launches a viral campaign to see whether England’s World Cup campaign can outlive a lettuce.
Definitely one or the other.
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