Every possible outcome of England’s World Cup opener on Monday presents a challenge. If the team draws, it will be experienced as a disaster. If they lose, good luck. If they win, football comes home.
There are truly unique challenges attached to the job of managing England.
I have been amazed and mystified in equal measure during my years in English football by the amount of unnecessary criticism a succession of English managers have faced and it has been no different in recent months.
Gareth Southgate will face a challenge even if England beat Iran on Monday
Let’s be fair, they haven’t played very exciting stuff in recent tournaments. But they have a final and a semi-final. It’s time for optimism, tempered by a healthy dose of realism.
Keeping up with expectations is extremely difficult when you’re coaching England. All that ridiculous “it’s coming home” stuff isn’t helping. This song has never done them a favor.
It’s harder than ever to cut player expectations because of social media and the internet and the way football is reported now. And for the same reasons, they’ll get twice as much on their necks if they don’t do well. It’s all part of the downside of being in the game today. Keeping them off the internet seems like a good idea to me. Easier said than done, I’m sure.
The biggest dose of over-expectation was our Scotland team in the 1978 World Cup, with manager Ally MacLeod telling everyone we were going there to Argentina to win it.
The trip was a disaster. There was the terrible organization of the Scottish FA and our “luxury” hotel – the Sierras, in the town of Alta Gracia – where the swimming pool lacked a rather essential ingredient. Water.
Then Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a drug test. The Scottish press sent reporters, hoping for their own headlines. We gave them their copy on a silver platter.
England need to get off to a quick start and hope Harry Kane fires on all cylinders
The world has since changed. Players from England and Wales will not be exposed to any of these situations. But the dynamic of a group of four teams has not changed. We played Iran, just like England will do, but it was the 3-1 loss to Peru in Cordoba – a game we should have won – that affected everything for us.
To then draw 1-1 with Iran was a disaster. I remember supporters abusing us with dogs. They had traveled so far to see us but I will never forget how they shouted obscenities at us from a ramp above the team coach.
We were really out then, unless there was a ridiculous result against the Netherlands, which we almost achieved when we beat them 3-2, the game I started in. But the damage was done in that crucial first game. Starting with a win makes so much difference.
For Gareth and England, each of these matches is fraught with pitfalls. Iran: a motivated and fit team playing under particular pressure given the politics of their country and with players who will see a showcase there.
The United States: organized and in good shape, without fear of England. A fantastic attitude with very good players. Wales: fiery, with an absolute superstar who in his time will score goals and punish you. If Gareth Bale has one of these plays, it means danger, with big flashing red lights. In fact, there are big flashing red lights everywhere. Worst-case scenarios will have given Gareth sleepless nights.
He is a deeply pragmatic man and I think it is very likely that he will start with two midfielders against Iran. He may think the issues surrounding centre-backs create a need to give more protection. Harry Maguire has had an indifferent season out of the Manchester United squad, Eric Dier hasn’t been at his best and there will be no Kyle Walker on Monday.
Southgate set to leave players off leash in first game against Iran on Monday
Kalvin Phillips has barely played, and England don’t need to deploy two starting midfielders
Harry Maguire has struggled this term but Southgate should resist the temptation to play another midfielder to protect the defense
Personally, I would leave the dogs off leash and go to Iran. Do they really need two starters in this game? I do not think so. Kalvin Phillips has barely played football and England have more than enough to beat their early opponents.
There must be an irreproachable attitude from the first minute and a minimum of caution. As Joe Fagan used to tell me on great European occasions at Liverpool: “You’ll see tonight, boy, won’t you? But if England don’t come off on a flyer in that first game, two things will happen: they will receive huge criticism and the pressure will become colossal.
I certainly don’t buy this idea that coming straight from the middle of the season is a problem. They went from one goal – winning games for their clubs – to England, so they didn’t have those two or three weeks to think things over and dwell on them.
As has never happened before at a World Cup, we are questioning everything. But if I had played for my country the day after or the month after a Premier League game, I would like to hope that my attitude would have been exactly the same.
The heat has been stronger than expected in Doha this week. Again, no problem. We are constantly told that today they are better athletes than ever. Their diet is better. They have an army of sports scientists. I go back to the argument that you can put a monitor on every part of your body except your brain. A few degrees higher than expected shouldn’t affect them and I don’t think anyone can use that as an excuse not to play.
England can build an ‘us against the world’ mentality during the World Cup in Qatar
England have a fabulous chance here to build an ‘us against the world’ mentality, the same way Sir Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United and Aberdeen before that.
They are out of the country. They can have as much isolation as they want. They can even ignore the Internet if they want. It’s just about them and what they do.
They can also reflect on what they have done. The major achievements of the last four years. These are players who will think they can go all the way and win considering how far they’ve come in the last two majors. They must be full of confidence.
Messi in the final is written in the stars
Gareth Bale’s lack of playing time in Los Angeles should certainly make the difference in his contribution to Wales. But there’s no guarantee you won’t get the best version of Bale and the top performance from him, especially when Wales take on England.
It’s a bit like Argentina, who will be a different team if the best version of Lionel Messi shows up, which I think will happen in their last World Cup. If Messi takes Argentina to the final, by the way, it will be his 1,000th game.
Something tells me it’s written in the stars when it comes to him, Argentina and this World Cup. As for Bale, he only needs a few minutes in these group stage games to win them. A couple of moments from Bale could put them in a good position.
It seems Lionel Messi’s destiny is for the World Cup final to be his 1,000th game
. GRAEME SOUNESS Gareth Southgate should let go the dogs go Iran