If anything about last month’s friendlies against Germany and Brazil set a resounding tone for Gareth Southgate it was the way in which, deprived of meaningful possession in the latter, his makeshift side weathered a storm. Few World Cup contenders travel far into the tournament without getting through choppy waters at some point: the task now, particularly with Belgium such an imposing rival for Group G supremacy next summer, is to ensure England are conditioned to master such punishing circumstances when it counts.
Shared hardship is one of Southgate’s pet themes although, giving his 19th and final interview of Friday night in a remote corner of Moscow’s vast Crowne Plaza hotel, he could have been excused for projecting. The issue is serious though and so was Southgate when, albeit with a laugh, he compared that examination by Neymar and company to the rigours of a visit to the Royal Marines’ commando training centre that his squad undertook in June.
“We had that in the last half-hour against Brazil as well, which is the most invaluable hardship you can go through,” Southgate said. “You’re on the pitch and you’re digging in for each other, getting that relief of keeping a clean sheet against arguably the best team in the world at the moment.”
Southgate’s reign has been notable for his concern that the squad shares its burden of expectation. He wants to create a team of leaders and the most visible evidence has been in his choice of six captains – Eric Dier, Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, Joe Hart, Gary Cahill and Wayne Rooney – across 14 games. The odds on a sole totemic, chest-thumping leader beating the path to Russia appear slim when you take into account his current thinking: the strong implication is that the system is here to stay and has had deeper benefits than a simple directive as to who points and shouts.
“I feel the process has been really revealing for us as a group of staff to watch, but also a good experience for the players to feel that responsibility and to share the ownership,” he said. “Too much has fallen on, in particular, Wayne’s shoulders in the last few years. Now there’s the opportunity, even in meetings and on the training pitch, for others to step forward, make contributions and give an opinion.”
In those circumstances the captaincy becomes more or less a ceremonial honour and Southgate said he would not be averse to following the Spanish model – also used by, among others, Italy – of awarding it to the most-capped player in a given team selection. “There have been times where having one leader is important,” he said. “But I feel as if the modern world is a little bit different and the shared responsibility becomes a more important thing.”
It is hardly an overnight process but those with added reason to mark England’s development feel there has already been a sea change from the night, 17 months ago, when little more than an early Icelandic squall brought them to their knees. The Tunisia coach, Nabil Maâloul, is tasked with plotting a similar upset and was not simply paying lip service when requested to rate their chances shortly after Friday’s draw. Maâloul works as a Premier League pundit and suggested England are not the same team that floundered last year.
“You feel there is one team,” he said. “There is a coach who has got them very tactically disciplined; the England mentality has completely changed.”
It would be wise not to get carried away until Southgate, for whom failure in a walk-through of a qualifying group was not an option, has cajoled England through a somewhat riskier environment. The squad’s relative lack of international knowhow is highlighted by the fact that, if Southgate abided strictly to Spain’s approach, the 22-year-old Raheem Sterling would be skipper-in-waiting in the not implausible event that none of Hart, Cahill or Henderson were on the pitch. Realistically, there is scant prospect of Sterling leading England out next summer but, in hitting scintillating form for Manchester City after a patchy previous year, he has made the kind of strides that serve as a perfect example for his manager to invoke.
“Certainly Raheem has real resilience,” Southgate said. “He is still a young player so there are moments where you have these leaps in improvement and that is huge credit to him and his mentality.”
Sterling is yet to hit similar heights for England and was substituted at half-time in the victory over Malta in September. Southgate has six months to extract a similar level of performance and is working to create an atmosphere where the mental lethargy that has pock-marked so much of England’s recent work is cast aside. He intends to plan another of those exacting awayday activities similar, although not identical, to that experience with the Marines and thinks his players require experiences that will “stimulate them, keep the energy up and the enthusiasm”.
The kind of hardiness that would give Southgate and England a fighting chance in June cannot be microwaved and, with the Football Association only recently having appointed a new head of people and team development in Pippa Grange it is unlikely that major changes to the backroom structure will be foisted upon the players travelling to Russia. Most of the psychological support will come from those already in situ; the hope is that England will translate the good feeling Southgate has nurtured into something even more satisfying. In the meantime, a little more adversity might just come in handy before the biggest challenges come around.
The Guardian Sport