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

The good ship Gazball sails clear.

England are in the World Cup quarter-finals against France, beating Senegal 3-0 at the Al Bayt Stadium. They had very little water to deal with at the start, but they were later beaten twice by Senegal at the end of the first half. The ease with which they played in the middle of the game, scoring the third goal, making changes, maintaining energy, no drama, no fuss, was a sign of the steady hand of the Southgate farmer.

If you’re looking for something more specific, you’ll have to wait. Because this victory shows nothing we don’t already know about Southgate’s practical, realistic England. We have seen a lot of this England over the years, at their efficient best. So far, Gareth.

Expect a clearer response in less than one week. Is this actually true? Is this actually new? Are England actually good? Or does it just happen that some nice guy is good and easy? All this will be answered in the most sincere of all tests, back here on Saturday night against France. A game that already feels so big that you can barely see its edges up close.

Lose, and England will fly home in the honorary quarter. It will feel like 2002 or 2006, and the question will be asked whether the South is running out of time, or whether England has returned to the middle and needs a fresh start. To win, however, and to be able to do everything. Win this, and they will most certainly hope to be in the World Cup less than two weeks from now.

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For now, these are still very much charted waters. What was so remarkable here was how different this felt from England’s last victory on this stage. Anyone who was in the last 16 of the World Cup against Colombia at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow in 2018 will recall it as an evening of emotional exhaustion and the dread of a long night. It was – we can say for a long time – a really awesome game. England were nervous, Colombia were cynical. England had won, then blew it, then almost lost in extra time, and then almost lost on penalties, but somehow came through in the end.

It was a huge achievement this season, the first time that England have won a major tournament by beating the Ecuadorians in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup, with Tony Blair as prime minister and David Beckham in charge of England. In fact – and Southgate admitted again this week – knocking the game out in Russia was England’s main objective, and everything else was good.

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Now in another place in England. It was their sixth knockout win under Southgate. And so this custom had a quality that made it almost incomprehensible to be drawn from that night in Moscow. That game was a marathon. This was at the end of the first half. That night, the English players were so impressed in the last games that they checked out. Southgate made five changes tonight, keeping key players ahead of the quarter-final. It was a long walk from the end.

In that sense, this felt like a triumph – or at least a reminder – of Southgate’s best skills. He understands the football tournament and how it progresses. He clearly thinks about plans and strategies. He doesn’t get too excited when England win or too depressed when they don’t. Some clearly think that Gazball is too cold, too rigid, too rigid, but the methodology for guiding England teams through major tournaments is more effective than any other method that has been tried before.

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What is sometimes lost on Southgate is the potential of his reserve allocation. (I remember when Carlos Quieroz, on the eve of the tournament, memorably pointed out how this team of England, in addition to others, “takes reality to every game.”) Sometimes they win the game from pieces, sometimes they win. from the side, sometimes from the back. Today, Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson took it over by bursting through the middle of the pitch.

You would say, well only Senegal, and Senegal without Sadio Mane or Idrissa Gueye. Of course this is true. But the paper football tournament didn’t play out, and many other teams with lots of talent have recently sunk into difficult waters. Look at Germany, the big tournament professionals, from the last two World Cups, they were kicked out in the group stage. Southgate is the master navigator of these games, which is why England’s memory of them is so much better now than it was.

But games are knockout, and there are games tun And this last 16 in the Euros was to win against Joachim Low, the tired old team of Germany, seven years after they won the World Cup, and in what Low was in charge of the final match.

(Photo: Eddie Keogh – FA/FA via Getty Images)

France will be different. They are not good practices. Now they are a good team. They reign as world champions. And in Kylian Mbappe they have one of the two men who has played like a god since the start of this tournament. There is no greater test in the world of football now than in them: not Spain, not Brazil, not even Lionel Messi’s Argentina. “It’s the biggest test we could do,” as Southgate later put it.

Is England up to it? We all know Germany were well into the relegation zone when England knocked them out last year. So can they beat the world’s top team?

There must be some reason to be optimistic. England have kept three clean sheets so far and conceded their only two goals when Iran were already well beaten in the open. (Southgate knows how to win a World Cup clean sheet: see France in 2018). England have started to find their form in front of goal too. Twelve goals in four games, scored by eight players, only one of them for Kane, none of them from penalties. If you want another big improvement from 2018 then here is one. They raced to score four years from the open play. But it is very easy for them.

And yet, despite all this, it was impossible to watch the first half here and not start thinking about Mbappe. It was only four minutes later that Boulaye Dia led to Harry Maguire on a straight path, in a large empty space behind England’s defence. Half a dozen times in the first half Maguire or John Stones – usually with the ball so good – gave it back to Senegal straight away. If Mane had played in England, he would certainly have been punished. If Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele benefit from their prime on Saturday, they will no doubt take the game away from England. If Stones and Maguire are this inexperienced on Saturday, the game will be over at half time.

That is not to say that England will lose outright. The game feels a heavy favor in France, because of the experience and because of Mbappe, but not by much.

What he has to offer is something we have been looking for with England for years: a clear answer at the end of a long journey, whether this is the end of their horizon or not.

(Photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)


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