The ruthless dismantling of Iran has transformed the mood, drawing swathes of the country back to a place of giddy optimism, and part of Southgate’s job is now to manage great expectations.
England will be expected to take the game to the USA with the same swashbuckling, front-foot approach as in Monday’s 6-2 win, but Southgate is wary that tonight will be a dramatically different affair.
“I guess people wouldn’t expect us to be like that having watched us for a couple of years and the style of football we play! Maybe we regress to the norm,” Southgate said in a wry acknowledgement that his side have often been accused of being dull. “We came into this tournament with intent, we played well. We exploited the opponent on the day. The next two games are going to be completely different.”
The US are ranked just four places above Iran by FIFA but are significantly more accomplished and ambitious. Whereas Carlos Queiroz’s side sat back and tried to cling on, tonight’s opponents will make life uncomfortable for England by getting in their faces with a energetic press from cute angles.
Such is the intensity of Gregg Berhalter’s side, Southgate has predicted a frenetic game will be played at “100 miles per hour” and, while the onus was on England to maintain the tempo against Iran, they will need cool heads at Al Bayt Stadium.
“Our defenders and our midfield players especially will be pressed more aggressively,” Southgate said. “We’ve got to be able to cope with that. And they’ll be more of a threat in counterattacks as well. A higher level of players, lots of players with Premier League experience, so it’s a different type of test. They press differently in terms of the angles of their pressure. And they’re all things we’ve got to adapt to.”
There will be an onus on the centre-backs, especially, to play through the US pressure and England’s ability to control the game could depend on Harry Maguire, who is set to win his 50th cap, and John Stones.
“The reason we’ve played those two for five years is because they’re the best with the ball,” Southgate said. “They take so much pressure from the opponent and allow us to build in a different way and have done for that period of time. That will be tested more and more.”
Defensive lapses were Southgate’s only frustration against Iran and he has demanded improved focus for the full 95 or 100 minutes, even if Berhalter’s side do not have a centre-forward in the same class as Mehdi Taremi, who scored both Iran goals on Monday.
An emerging theme in Qatar of lesser sides enjoying success when taking the game to their established opponents should offer the US further encouragement in their aggressive gameplan and discourage any thoughts of trying to contain England’s in-form front five.
Saudi Arabia’s stunning win over Argentina came with a high-risk, high-pressing approach, while Canada were unfortunate not to take at least a point from Belgium after having 22 shots. By contrast, Iran and Costa Rica, who went down 7-0 to Spain, were thrashed while piling men behind the ball in a low block.
“You’ve got to be at your very best,” said Southgate. “It’s a reminder that when I’m moaning about the players for letting two in, I should have been happy with three points, really! You’ve got to be ready for every team because every team is well coached and tactically aware.”
There will be psychological factors at play, too, with a highly-motivated US team eyeing a prized scalp with a squad including a number of Premier League players — and even a former England youth international in teenager Yunus Musah, who switched to the country of his birth last year.
Southgate, meanwhile, believes there is a different kind of pressure on his team, with qualification for the last-16 now on the line.
The challenge for the manager is ensuring his players have “reset” mentally, while also demanding more of the same, and he is expected to name an unchanged team after Maguire and captain Harry Kane recovered from being forced off on Monday with dehydration and a minor foot complaint, respectively.
As Southgate pointed out, history does not favour England, who were beaten by the USA in the 1950 World Cup and drew with them in the 2010 tournament, and he warned against overconfidence in another show of calming expectations.
“Have we ever beaten the States at a major tournament?” Southgate asked. “No. We are good at talking highly of ourselves as a nation on the basis of very little evidence. We’ve got to perform on the pitch.”