The footballers locked in their Qatari hotel rooms will be spending many happy hours on their game consoles. If we think of the World Cup as a video game, then England are about to complete Level 1: qualifying for the knockout rounds. But they have evolved beyond considering that an achievement.
This tournament comes at the optimal point in the team’s life cycle. About half the players likely to kick off Tuesday’s last group match against Wales featured in the World Cup semi-final defeat against Croatia in 2018; about nine played last year’s lost Euro 2020 final against Italy. Of England’s regulars here, only right-back Kieran Trippier, 32, has passed the age of 30. Few teams get three tournaments together, and the objective in Qatar is clear.
A third long run ending in plucky defeat won’t satisfy anyone. England haven’t shone here like France or Spain, but manager Gareth Southgate has done enough research to write a PhD on how teams win tournaments, and shining doesn’t come into it. So what do England need to reach Level 5 — lifting the trophy on December 18? And for those of us who have witnessed their disasters from St Etienne to São Paulo, how are they most likely to trip up here?
With four points from two games, England will reach the knockout rounds even if they lose to Wales by three goals. Still, given English football history, deflating embarrassment is always an option. To avoid it, they must stop the match from turning into an old-style British derby, replete with aerial contests and last-ditch tackles.
Wales — the sort of side familiar to anyone who has watched enough lower-division English football, or indeed anyone who has seen Australia play in Qatar — would love that. England must make their superior technique count by controlling the ball, forcing the Welsh to chase. Wales have reached the end of their cycle, which peaked in the semi-final of Euro 2016 when Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey were in their prime. Only their singing fans have lit up Qatar. I have watched the Welsh against both the US and Iran, and struggle even to identify any attacking weapon or strategy. England should defend near the halfway line, as usual, to keep what remains of the once great Bale, now 33, out of shooting range.
In the second round this weekend, England will probably encounter an unspectacular, well-organised defensive side — either Ecuador or the Netherlands. Ecuador are unbeaten in nine games, and Oranje in seventeen. England’s greater individual quality might not prove decisive.
Yet both those teams, and Wales, suit England in one way: none seeks much possession. England tend to fare worst against skilled, possession-oriented sides that wear them down with constant attacks: Belgium and Croatia at the last World Cup; Italy at Euro 2020. As England showed against the USA on Friday, they don’t have much of a pressing game that can win the ball back.
Southgate’s strategy — which mostly worked against the Americans — is to keep a defensive shape and give little away. It’s not pretty, but then England’s calculation is that with their aerial strength at setpieces and Harry Kane’s nose for goal, a couple of chances should be enough.
Southgate is sometimes described as “loyal” to his regular players. More accurately, he believes that settled teams with strong mutual on-field understanding do better. That’s why he has constructed a “Team England”, almost like a club side, and will probably ignore pressure to drop the uninspiring Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount.
Sterling has 20 goals for England — an important metric for Southgate, who values it more highly than club form — and Mount is a player appreciated by coaches rather than adored by fans. A coach’s son himself, he has a quality rare among footballers: during a game, he can think about the collective functioning rather than just his own role. (So can Kylian Mbappé, the son and nephew of Paris-region amateur coaches.) Mount will continue to close off opponents’ passing lines, just as Sterling will run on to flick-ons from Kane during the latter’s sorties into midfield.
If England do progress, one worry will be how Harry Maguire — an impressive passer from the back in Qatar — will cope against mobile forwards such as Brazil’s Raphinha, France’s Ousmane Dembelé and Germany’s Jamal Musiala (who grew up in Croydon, south London). Southgate may expand his central defence from two men to three, adding his stalwart Kyle Walker, now back from injury.
England don’t aim to rise above themselves in some heroic Nelsonian struggle. The bet is that being their predictable Southgateian selves will be enough.