Patience – that’s what Gareth Southgate asked during his press conference on the eve of England’s first match at the 2022 World Cup.
You sensed that this appeal was aimed as much at England fans as at its players, who are likely to encounter stubborn Iranian resistance. A low blockage, which will frustrate and disturb.
Still, don’t expect the England manager to abandon the cautious pragmatism that has served his side so well in the last two major tournaments.
England’s opening match at the Russia World Cup four years ago was described by the media as “a stuttering”, “dull” and “uninspiring” start.
Harry Kane scored a stoppage-time winner in Volgograd against Tunisia to claim a 2-1 win over a side ranked 23rd in the FIFA rankings. But, above all, they won. And it was the start of England’s best run in a World Cup final for more than half a century.
Iran are three places higher now than Tunisia then and if you offered Southgate something similar but effective in this Group B opener, they would break your hand. This first game for England is all about the result and avoiding injuries to key players.
The naturally cautious Southgate will be infinitely aware of the pitfalls if he loses. Teams that have no points after their first group game often struggle to progress. They have no room for maneuver and must win their last two games to guarantee their qualification. Four points, and it’s a lottery if you get to the round of 16.
You know that in his mind, even if he doesn’t admit it publicly, Southgate will think a draw is not a bad result. The United States and Wales (in particular) will offer tougher challenges – especially given the unrest in Iran which is still engulfing the nation and impacting the national football team.
The key question regarding Southgate’s tactics concerns formation. Privately, the England manager and his assistant Steve Holland are puzzled by the general view that playing with three centre-backs is negative and not attacking enough.
And while it’s possible that this is the system they could use against Iran, it could well be that they opt for a flat back four, in order to have an extra player in midfield – and that player would almost certainly be Jude Bellingham.
The idea that Southgate could alter their defensive formation in order to accommodate a 19-year-old midfielder is extraordinary. But it’s an equally apt description of Bellingham’s performance this season – 23 appearances for Borussia Dortmund, many of them as captains, is testament to that.
A full-back four would allow the England manager to achieve three crucial goals in one: get an extra attacking player on the pitch, harness Bellingham’s athleticism, energy and true ability in defense and attack, and – most importantly – get also from Kalvin Phillips the playing time which he desperately needs.
The Manchester City midfielder underwent shoulder surgery in September and has played less than 70 minutes of football all season.
For a man who was ever present in England’s run to the Euro final, and who Southgate rates so highly alongside guaranteed starter Declan Rice, that’s a worry.
Southgate will want a full Phillips for the key games ahead, so getting him some minutes on the pitch now is essential. This could, however, be achieved by bringing him in after an hour of play, for example.
And remember that this is the first World Cup where five substitutions are allowed. This means Southgate can change half of all his outfield players during the game, and it means the starting 11 he chooses is less fundamental than it was.
It also means whoever he chooses to start alongside Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane (both of whom are nailed starters) may well be asked to play a more disciplined role, with an eye on the counterattacks of the opposition,
This would perhaps indicate that Bukayo Saka or Mason Mount would be third in the attacking trio – both of whom have defensive acumen and have been outstanding doing the dirty work for Southgate in past games.
Whether it’s a back three or a back four that Southgate chooses, Harry Maguire is almost certain to be the center of that defence. It will be controversial, given his lack of playing time for Manchester United and his shattered confidence, which was not helped by a defensive howl that cost England a goal against Germany at Wembley there. at eight weeks.
England’s nightmarish Nations League campaign means they have not won for six matches – the team’s worst run of results since Southgate took charge.
He will be desperate to end this run without a win in this World Cup immediately, and if England can do that, confidence – among players and fans alike – will no doubt return quickly.