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

Good ship Gazball sailing peacefully.

England advanced to the World Cup quarter-finals against France after beating Senegal 3-0 at the Albert Stadium. They had to navigate some choppy waters at the start but then broke Senegal twice towards the end of the first half. They dominated the second half with ease, scored the third goal, made changes, conserved energy, without drama, without fuss, the hallmark of Southgate’s steady hand at the helm.

If you’re looking for something a little more certain, then you’ll have to wait. Because the win doesn’t show that we don’t know Southgate’s actual, realistic England. That’s the England team we’ve seen over the last few years, at their best. So far, Gareth.

The wait for a more definitive answer will take less than a week. is this real? Is this really new? Is the UK really good? Or is all of this just a coincidence of a good guy, some good players and some easy draws? All of this will be answered in the biggest touchstone, back here against France on Saturday night. A game that feels so big that its edges are barely visible up close.

Lose it and England will fly home to the quarter-finals with honors. It felt like 2002 or 2006 and people were asking if the Southgate era was over, if England had returned to the mean and needed to start over. Still, win that game and anything is possible. Win that game and they certainly hope to reach the World Cup final in less than two weeks.

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For now, these are still very clear waters. What is so striking here is how different this is from England’s last win at this stage. Anyone who attended the last World Cup round of 16 match against Colombia at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium in 2018 will remember it as a night of emotional exhaustion and late-night fears. It was — shall we say the distance of time — a really bad game. England is nervous, Colombia is cynical. England should have won it, then screwed it up, then almost lost it in extra time, then almost lost it on penalties, but somehow it ended up crossing the line.

It was a huge achievement at the time, and it was the first time England had won the knockout stages of a major tournament since defeating Ecuador in the round of 16 of the World Cup in 2006, when Tony Blair was prime minister and David Beckham captained England. In fact – Southgate admitted again this week – winning the knockout rounds is England’s main objective in Russia and everything else is a bonus.

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England are in a different position now. It was their sixth knockout win under Southgate. So this has a routine quality that makes it almost unrecognizable on that exhausting night in Moscow. That race was a marathon. The game was over at the end of the first half. The physical exertion of the England players was so great that night that they did not perform well in the following games. Southgate made five changes tonight, keeping his key players ahead of the quarter-finals. And finally a walk.

In that sense, it feels like a triumph – or at least a reminder of Southgate’s best qualities. He understands championship football and what it takes to progress. He thinks clearly about strategy and planning. He doesn’t get too excited when England win, and he doesn’t get too upset when they don’t. Some obviously thought Gazball was too ruthless, too calculated and too rigid, but as a methodology for guiding England’s big game, it worked better than anything else that had been tried before.

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Where Southgate sometimes gets lost is in his ability to allocate resources. (Remember Carlos Queiroz memorably noted on the eve of the Championship that this England team was “realistic about every game” compared to the rest.) Sometimes they won from set-pieces, sometimes they won. Win races from the outside, sometimes from behind. Today, they won through Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson through the middle.

You might say, well, it’s just Senegal, not Senegal without Sadio Mane or Idris Sagueye. Of course it is true. But Championship football doesn’t play out on paper and many other teams with a lot of talent have struggled of late. Look at Germany, the great tournament pros who were knocked out at the group stage. Southgate is the leader in these games, which is why England’s record in these games is much better than before.

But there are knockouts, and there are knockouts, and England have won six games under Southgate, only one of which came close to what you could describe as another top team. It was the final round of 16 victory over Joachim Löw’s worn-out old Germany, seven years after they won the World Cup and Löw’s last game in charge.

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

France will be different. They’re not the good team they used to be. They are a good team. They are the defending world champions. In Kylian Mbappe they have one of two men who have behaved like gods since the start of this tournament. There is no bigger test in world football right now: not Spain, not Brazil, not even Lionel Messi’s Argentina. “It was the biggest test we could face,” as Southgate said afterwards.

Will England take it? We all know that when England beat Germany last year, Germany was going downhill. So can they knock a team off the top of the world?

There are some reasons for optimism. England have kept three clean sheets so far, their only two concedings coming as Iran were beaten in their opener. (Southgate knows clean sheets win the World Cup: look at France 2018). England also started to find their form in front of goal. Twelve goals in four games, eight goals, Kane only one goal, and none of the goals came from penalties. If you want another big improvement from 2018, here’s one. Four years ago, they struggled to score in open play. Now it’s easy for them.

Yet despite this, it’s impossible not to watch the first half here and not start to have some worrying thoughts about Mbappe. Boulaye Dia had just four minutes to go straight behind Harry Maguire and into the wide open space behind the England defense. On six occasions in the first half, Maguire or John Stones – usually in good possession – passed the ball straight to Senegal. If Mane has been playing, England will certainly be punished. Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele will not hesitate to take the game away from England if they benefit from Saturday’s blunder. Had Stones and Maguire been so sloppy on Saturday, the game would have ended at half-time.

That’s not to say England will necessarily lose. Because of their experience and Mbappe, the game feels in France’s favour, but not by much.

What it offers is what we’ve been looking for in England for years: a glimpse of a definitive answer at the end of a long journey, whether or not this is the end of their horizon.

(Photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)


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