When it comes to scoring drills, England’s World Cup qualifying final was quite emphatic. Gareth Southgate’s team needed a point from the road game against San Marino to secure advancement to the World Cup, and they ended up winning 10-0, the first time they had reached double figures in competitive play. San Marino is officially ranked as the worst soccer team in the world, number 210 out of 210, and it seemed so. Harry Kane scored four goals to move from a tie for fourth alongside Jimmy Greaves on England’s all-time scorers list to a tie for third. But did it matter?
The truth is that if your goal is to win big tournaments, matches against teams like San Marino, Albania or even Hungary or Poland, it doesn’t matter much. This is one of the difficulties of international football: most of the games that are played have little to do with who will win the biggest prizes. When Manchester City play in the FA Cup against, say, Cheltenham, they fall behind but pull off a 3-1 win with three late goals, as they did last season, no one thinks too much about that. Cheltenham played well and frustrated City, but in the end the quality said.
But if England did something similar against the opposition equivalent of League Two, there would be a protest. Because there are fewer games, because the circus doesn’t move on to the next game four days later, international football always attracts more scrutiny. However, whether City won that game 1-0 or 10-0 has very little to do with their ability to win the Champions League. It is a completely different football.
Alf Ramsey, who led England to World Cup glory in 1966, got it. Before the 1966 World Cup, England beat Norway 6-1 in a friendly that delighted fans and the press. Ramsey was much more satisfied with a monotonous 1-0 win over West Germany at the end of which England was booed. He knew that hitting a minnow was largely irrelevant; Much more significant was the ability to control the midfield against a quality West German team. For him, playoffs and group games had to be overcome; only the knockouts really mattered.
To be fair, that has largely been Gareth Southgate’s focus. And it has worked. Whatever the complaints there were during the Eurocup group stage, when England topped their table with just two goals, they were largely forgotten when England beat Germany, Ukraine and Denmark to reach the final. The solidity against minor teams (and Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic, all of which have qualified for at least the World Cup qualifying playoffs this time, weren’t much minor) may not be particularly exciting, but it’s a essential base. for taking better sides later in the competition. England have only won 14 knockout games in major tournaments, and Southgate is responsible for five of them, so his method clearly works.
Or it works up to a point. The loss to Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals and the penalty shootout loss to Italy in the European Championship final followed a similar pattern: England took the lead and ended up falling deeper and deeper, coming under increasing pressure and responding. too late. There must be criticism of Southgate for that – the inability to “smell” the game is perhaps his only constant fault, but it also stems from a deep-seated English anxiety when success is within his grasp, a 55-year-old spinoff without a trophy.
The raters, frankly, can’t judge at all if that problem has been solved. So has anything been learned? The temptation, especially considering how England conceded late in Poland, is to say no, but that may be unfair. The team has been further refined and Phil Foden has started to influence the games. Perhaps the most significant has been the change in these last two qualifiers, going back three. Southgate has gone from a three to a four throughout his reign, but the decision was apparently made at the Euro that he would use a four in games where England were expected to dominate the ball, and a three in matches. more competitive. Using a three against Albania and San Marino, with very offensive full-backs, is an advance in that.
Given England’s strength as a full back, that makes sense. It’s a way of putting maybe three full-backs on the wing, one as a central flank defender and two as a full-back, and at the same time utilizing two from the fleet of young creative players with the advantage of the wingers to get out of them. With Jordan Henderson, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, there’s also a healthy depth to the heart of midfield, and the system also allows for fairly easy changes of emphasis by changing personnel rather than form.
All of that is encouraging. But frankly, none of that means anything until Qatar.
More Jonathan Wilson football coverage:
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.