Are England actually good? We will find out on Saturday against Mbappe

Gazball’s good ship sails smoothly.

England are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup against France after dispatching Senegal 3-0 at the Al Bayt Stadium. They had to negotiate the stormy waters at the start but Senegal cut two in stoppage time at the end of the first half. The ease with which they managed the second half of the game, scored the third goal, made the changes, kept the energy, no play, no fuss, was a sign of Southgate’s firm hand in farmer’s manager.

If you are looking for something more specific, then you should wait. Because this win didn’t reveal what we don’t know about Southgate’s true England training. This is the England we’ve seen so much of in recent years, at their best. Now, so is Gareth.

Waiting for an answer is less than a week. Is this a real thing? Is this new? Is England really that good? Or are these things that only good people, good players and easy draws deserve? All this will be answered in the biggest litmus test of all, here on Saturday night against France. It’s a game that’s so ambitious that it’s impossible to see the edges of it from up close.

Lose that and England cruise home to glory in the quarter-finals. It will be like 2002 or 2006, and the question will be asked if Southgate’s season has run its course, if England have regressed to the mean and need a fresh start. It will be successful, and all will be. Win that and they will hope to be in the World Cup final less than two weeks from now.

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Now, these waters are much larger. The most surprising thing here is how different this feeling is from England’s last win at this stage. Everyone in their World Cup last-16 match against Colombia at the Spartak Moscow stadium in 2018, will remember the evening of fatigue and fear at night. It is – we can say with a long time – a really scary game. England were scared, Colombia were brutal. England might have won it, then blown it, then almost lost it in stoppage time, then almost lost it on penalties, but it was over the line in the end.

It was a huge achievement at the time, the first time England had won a knockout game at a major tournament since they beat Ecuador in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup, when prime minister Tony Blair and David Beckham England captain. . The truth is – and Southgate admitted again this week – that winning the knockout game is England’s main objective in Russia, and everything else is a bonus.

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England is in a different place now. This is their sixth win under Southgate. And so this is a trend that has not been seen since that bloody night in Moscow. That game was a marathon. This ended at the end of the first half. That night, England’s players went on strike and are now blocking future matches. Tonight Southgate made five changes, keeping his key players ahead of the quarter finals. In the end it was a walk.

In that sense this was a victory – or rather a reminder – of Southgate’s best qualities. He understands competitive football and what it takes to be successful. He carefully thought out plans and strategies. He doesn’t go up when England win or down when they don’t. Some people clearly think that Gazball is too cold, too structured, too rigid, but as a way of guiding English teams through major competitions, it is better than any other method that has been tried. done before.

What is sometimes lost with Southgate is his ability to distribute possession. (Remember when Carlos Quieroz pointed out, on the night of the match, remembering how this England team, unlike others, “takes a real attitude to each game”.) Sometimes they win the game from set pieces, sometimes they win it. from wide out, sometimes from running behind. Today they won through Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson breaking through the middle of the pitch.

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You might say, only Senegal, and Senegal without Sadio Mane and Idrissa Gueye. This is true. But championship football is not played on paper and many other teams with lots of talent have fallen into difficult waters at the moment. Just look at Germany, the giants of competition, who have been dumped out of the last two World Cups at the group stage. Southgate is the master of these games, which is why England’s record is better now than ever.

But there are knockout games and there are knock-out games, and of the six that England have won under Southgate, only one of them has been against what you would describe as a top team. And it was a last-16 win at the Euros against Joachim Low’s tired old Germany team, seven years after they won the World Cup, and it was Low’s last game.


(Image: Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

The French are different. They are not a used group. They are a good team now. They are the reigning world champions. And in Kylian Mbappe they have one of the two men who have played like a god since the beginning of this tournament. There is no greater test in world football now than them: not Spain, not Brazil, not even Lionel Messi’s Argentina. “It was the biggest test we could have faced,” as Southgate said afterwards.

Will England make it? We all know that Germany had a good run when England beat them​​​​​​​last year. So can they knock a team off the ground?

There are several factors to consider. England have kept three clean sheets this season and the only two goals they have conceded have come when Iran comfortably won the opener. (Southgate knows clean sheets will win the World Cup: just look at France in 2018). England are starting to find their form in front of goal. Twelve goals in four games, scored by eight players, only one of them for Kane, none of them from the penalty area. If you want another big upgrade from 2018 then here it is. Four years ago they struggled to score from open play. Now it’s easy for them.

And despite all this, it is impossible to watch the first half here and not start to have some concerns about Mbappe. Just four minutes later Boulaye Dia ran straight past Harry Maguire, into those big gaps behind the England defence. Half a dozen times in the first half Maguire or John Stones – usually very good with the ball – gave it directly to Senegal. If Mane was playing for England, he would have been punished. If Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele are successful in those turns on Saturday, they will not hesitate to take the game from England. If Stones and Maguire were this dirty on Saturday the game would be over at half-time.

That’s not to say that England will actually lose. The game was heavy in France’s favor, because of their experience and because of Mbappe, but not much.

What he offers is something we have been looking for with England for years: a sense of a clear answer at the end of a long journey, whether this is the end of their world stage or not.

(Photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)



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