MARTIN SAMUEL: Smash hit England are far from a one-man band.. Gareth Southgate’s team have an identity and a philosophy no matter WHO the boss picks
- England are readying themselves to face USA in their second World Cup match
- Captain Harry Kane had been a doubt but has since been cleared to feature
- His potential absence wasn’t considered a calamity given England’s system
- Gareth Southgate’s side have a philosophy that all squad members contribute to
- Click here for the latest World Cup 2022 news, fixtures, live action and results
There was a scare this week, around Harry Kane. A strange kind of scare, really, because it wasn’t scary.
Kane, England’s captain and talisman, suffered an injury to his ankle. He went for scans, he was in a lot of pain, there was a very real danger he could be out of today’s match with the United States, and perhaps even longer. And it wasn’t considered a calamity.
It mattered, of course it mattered. Kane is England’s best goalscorer and their leader. He didn’t score against Iran on Monday, but his influence was everywhere. He made two goals — the first England player at a World Cup to do so since David Beckham in 2006 —and his movement created space for others. Kane remains a hugely influential and important player.
Harry Kane underwent scans on his ankle ahead of England’s clash with the USA on Friday
Kane (R) has been cleared to play but there was a lack of calamity over his potential absence
It’s just that, without him, we’ll live. No Kane, no crisis any more. It never used to be like that. Sven Goran Eriksson often spoke as if, without Wayne Rooney, England might as well board the bus for the airport. After the 2010 tournament, Fabio Capello felt his plans could be ruined by a Joe Hart injury.
‘I think it comes down to identity,’ wrote Harry Redknapp in his 2013 autobiography. ‘We don’t have any. We’ve bumbled along, a hundred different systems, are we kicking it, are we passing it?’
And then in walked Gareth Southgate. If there is a reason the thought of being without Kane in Al Khor this evening did not fill the country with trepidation, it is because the manager has instilled a philosophy, a way of playing that endures.
Marcus Rashford, perhaps Callum Wilson, would fill in for Kane and the rest of the team would stay the same.
Not that England are one-dimensional. A back four becomes a back five, 4-3-3 becomes 3-4-3, there are tweaks and nuances. Yet the confusion Redknapp spoke about, those teams who knocked it aimlessly around at the back one moment, launched it towards a combative frontman the next, those days have gone.
Gareth Southgate has managed to instill his own philosophy on the Three Lions squad
Southgate’s England could ride the challenge of a game without Kane. He has built a group who are, for once, more than the sum of their parts.
Southgate sat at England’s training camp at Al Wakrah, a municipality south of Doha, yesterday. Before the game with Iran he was wearing trainers emblazoned with the message ‘anything is possible’ but these had been changed.
Perhaps he felt less need for motivational mantras once England won their first game 6-2. Anyway, the trainers were unadorned, as was Southgate’s appraisal of his team. He is honest about where England are now, and where they were even 18 months ago, en route to the European Championship finals.
‘I see more of our attacking players in a better moment than they were in the Euros,’ he said. ‘I know people talked a lot about the depth we had then, but I didn’t see that for some of the squad. They were not in those really good moments when you were looking to make changes. There were some who were there, but not all.
‘Now, I’m looking at training and it’s at a really good level among the group and they’re making my decisions harder. If there’s an injury to a player now, I’m always thinking, “OK, who’s the next one in?”. I see it as an opportunity for someone else.’
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford could deputize should Kane be unavailable
Not that Kane, Rashford and Wilson are interchangeable. More that England are no longer susceptible to the vagaries of misfortune at a tournament. In 2004, when Rooney limped out of the European Championship quarter-final with Portugal, Eriksson’s response was ruinously conservative.
At the World Cup two years later, he waited desperately for the same player to be declared fit and was rewarded with the performance of a man who should have remained on a treatment table.
Compare this to Southgate now. Reece James left at home; Kyle Walker left out of the team until Southgate feels certain of his recovery — he may get some minutes tonight, depending on the state of the game, so too Kalvin Phillips. Kane? He is almost certain to start but won’t be risked if there is any suggestion of the ankle weakening. It would be a brave decision to leave him out, said Southgate.
‘Harry’s a special player,’ added Southgate (left). ‘Everybody will focus on his goals but the quality of his build-up play the other day for Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford was exceptional. We’re blessed to have him.
Callum Wilson (R) would be the natural back-up to Kane should he get injured in Qatar
‘Equally, what we’ve tried to do from the very start was not put all the onus on him as captain, whether that’s media duties, or whatever else it might be, to spread the load, give people more responsibility.
‘We have now got more depth, while not wanting to diminish what Harry brings us. I guess at the highest level it’s got to be proved that we can maintain without him, but we would always have to adapt and we’ve got to make sure we are able to do that.
‘In the end it’s delivering on this sort of stage which is key. We’ve got good depth, we’ve got people who are going to push the players who started the other day. They knew that if they don’t perform there’s somebody behind them who’s ready to come in and is hungry and at a good level. Sometimes that is the motivation as much as what I might say to a player. They know there’s someone to come in and take their place. So far, we’ve seen a really good version of a number of our players.’
The England captain trained with the rest of the squad ahead of the second match in Qatar
Undoubtedly, the US represent a sterner test than Iran. They are an energetic, high pressing side who will afford considerably less time on the ball. Asked whether there was a danger England could underestimate their opponents having started so well, Southgate almost snorted his derision.
‘Have we ever beaten the United States at a World Cup?’ he queried. He knew the answer, obviously. P2 D1 L1. ‘We’re very good at this, talking highly of ourselves despite there being very little evidence to back it up.
‘Look, we’re going to have to be at our best. The mistake would be to think because we played well we’re just going to go through. We have now got to press the reset button, and we won’t be underestimating them at all.’
Gareth Southgate’s side will take on the USA at the Al Bayt Stadium on Friday night
It would be wrong and patronising to classify tonight’s opponents as minnows anyway. Saudi Arabia may still have that status by wider comparison, but countries like the US and Japan have been consistently getting to World Cups, consistently improving for years now.
The US team who made it out of the group stage at their own World Cup in 1994 had seven players employed in major European leagues, with Coventry, Derby and Luton represented: this squad has 17, including players from Arsenal, AC Milan, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus.
Times have changed; thankfully, England have changed, too.
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