A rare touch of mischief from Gareth Southgate also hints at a bit of it. The England manager was asked how conscious he was of Wales’ attitude towards England, and for example videos of the team celebrating the team’s elimination to Iceland at Euro 2016. Seems like an easy motivation.
“I couldn’t tell,” Southgate smiles. “We are aware of some of them, but I cannot say whether we will use them or not…”
If this was going to be an old trick, it would be for a new fixture. This is the first time any of the UK teams have met in a World Cup, sharpening the gap between England’s weak chances and Wales’ chances to pass.
Southgate is a friend of Eddie Jones and listens very well to what he has to say, so special attention has been paid to the England rugby union manager talking about how other home nations have upgraded themselves for the fixture. Southgate felt something similar in the Euro 2020 group stage match against Scotland last summer.
“Physically, they found a level that they couldn’t find before and then couldn’t find in the game,” he said. “So that’s the nature of this game. But you have to get over it and make sure that our quality is important and that we are calm in our game. You have to match the spirit and the glitz, the quality with the ball that allows us to be ruthless.”
This is the simple truth that frames the entire match. England have much better players and a potentially top group. Wales are on the lower side and very visibly negative side of a cycle than two or six years ago – when England beat them in the Euro 2016 group stage. There is a recession.
Still, this may be the kind of game that will temporarily distract them from it, and “The Land of Our Fathers” rarely feels as emotional as a World Cup match against England when it comes to knockout. Southgate could not help admiring this, but objected to the idea that the Welsh team felt stronger about playing for their country rather than their own players.
To be fair they have a great starter. It mixes. I think it’s okay if people want to say that, but they don’t know very well about our dressing room or the English dressing rooms I’ve been to as a player. It’s an easy narrative for people to tell, but that’s not my experience.”
While Southgate stressed that England should really secure qualification, it is implied that there is much more to this game. It’s about the manager trying to find the chemistry that sparked his team after an awkward group so far. England are in a comfortable position but do not feel dominated despite scoring six goals in one match. The limited performance against the United States seemed to immediately halt the momentum, as if Southgate had been so worried about the two goals against Iran that he had decided to ensure that nothing similar would happen. If so, it has ensured that the UK has no real zippers other than Bukayo Saka out there.
“No two games are the same,” Southgate said. “We realize that we’re focused on our performance, we have to play well. We want to put the two parts of our game together. In the first game we showed how we can attack. In the second game we showed ourselves another side and we need to combine these things as we move through the tournament to be a serious contender in the championship.
Again, much more about Wales. The bigger question is whether the UK can be much more than it is and how much is down to staff, particularly Phil Foden.
Southgate insisted that the Manchester City playmaker “will play a big role in this tournament, there is no doubt in my mind about that”.
If so, why was it not used? Southgate clarified his reasoning, citing a similar discussion about Jack Grealish in the past.
“We scored 6 goals in the first game. We didn’t have a different discussion about how we wanted to play before the second game. Yes, we could have changed the starting team, but we decided to continue with the team that attacked very well. It’s different than any team we’ve played in the last six years, we’re more athletic, we faced a team that took up more space.
“I have Jack that I was killed for not using 18 months ago. Marcus [Rashford]We think it’s a really good force. Phil is, of course, our favorite player who can change the game. If we had put Phil in the game and he hadn’t scored, we’d be talking about Jack or Marcus. We are somewhat in this situation. I will not change this. I know for a lot of people how they decided that was going to happen, and I need to keep making the decision that has the best chance of winning for us.”
Southgate was otherwise enthusiastic about Foden, but pointed to how different the context of his role at Manchester City was to that in England. This is undeniable and marks a different approach to coaching. While Foden takes on a rather sophisticated role for Pep Guardiola, where there is constant fluidity and movement, this is not the case for England. He’s much stricter, so Southgate mentioned that he won’t be able to use him in midfield.
“We’re happy with how he is, we’re happy with how he’s training. He’s smart, ready and a good player. We’re lucky to have exciting players. Sometimes he’s just a good player. [No] 10 per game is unrealistic because in a game like last night you have to have the ball and he has defensive responsibilities that his club doesn’t have to do. From wide field, different, defensive responsibility is different. He has a defense responsibility, but his role is different. At 10 you need to take up a lot more ground and be much more aware of gaps without the ball. If that bit of pressure isn’t right then they will pass you by and enter your back line. That’s why we didn’t put it at 10 last night.
“There are matches in the midfield where there is no same tactical struggle. There might be a little more freedom and this might be the place for him to go and express himself. But his club is not doing that, there must be a reason. But he is a great option for us in two or three different positions and will have a big impact on the games.
“But we also have to be careful because we’re putting a lot of pressure on him right now. We’re a team and we need all the players and they can all play a part, but none of them are the reason we win or lose. We have to make sure we don’t put him in a situation where it becomes difficult because the level of expectation is beyond a young man who is still establishing himself internationally, a different environment from his club where you are comfortable with all the players you play with.
“It’s really different: you go home every night, everything else is calm. [at club level]; this is still a unique environment. He’s still a very young actor and he’s giving a great performance and we love him piece by piece. We also need to take a look at it a bit.
Southgate hinted that Trent Alexander-Arnold might finally be available if this game gets frustrating.
“He’s definitely a player who can do that against a team that’s been behind, but that’s not how I saw the game against America. I don’t think they sit back at all, I think they are pressured and athletically aggressive. I didn’t see the game the way you did.”
That’s why he doesn’t see the discussion of Harry Kane being listened to either.
“We are not yet qualified.”
This game will decide that, but it could also point to the future. Much more than a narrow-minded derby.