Gareth Southgate said nothing was impossible for England and urged his players to embrace the excitement of a World Cup before meeting Iran in their opening game on Monday afternoon.
The England head coach struck a positive note as he shifted his focus to on-field matters and insisted his players should be proud to represent their country on the world stage, despite the controversy surrounding the organization of the tournament in Qatar. the negativity that has dogged his side for much of this year.
Southgate is under great pressure at this World Cup after six games without a win. He has faced fierce criticism following England’s relegation from their Nations League group in September, with the negativity summed up by fans booing him after recent defeats to Hungary and Italy, and is only too aware of the importance of a strong start.
Still, Southgate was in good spirits for England’s Group B opener, talking about their prospects and laughing at reports of Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino wanting his job.
“Maybe we made the impossible look possible,” Southgate said. “It is exciting for other people and I can understand that. We want England to remain competitive for years to come and I believe our academy system has that.
“Within that there are challenges as we are back to 31% of the league qualifying for England and only four or five high level exports. There are still some challenges for us in terms of development and opportunities for players. But we also have some good players and we should be competitive with this group for the next six, eight years.”
The buzz in England has eased since their run-up to the semi-finals of the previous World Cup and the Euro 2020 final. Still, Southgate is optimistic. Eric Dier has acknowledged that some of the excitement has been taken away by the question of Qatar’s human rights record, but the mood in the British camp is relaxed.
“What we’ve been trying to do for the last seven years is get them excited about going to a World Cup and that’s balanced on the topics they have to discuss, which are very serious,” said Southgate.
“There is a lot of negativity around the tournament and I want them to understand the unique honor of representing England at a major tournament.
“We tried to talk about those things, make it special. The work on the training field is really focused. We felt a nice balance between them being in the relaxing environment of the hotel but really good competitiveness on the pitch.
Southgate has tried to remove himself from the negativity. “The little time I spend looking at what the headlines are in the morning, I usually bury it anyway because it won’t help me. More than ever in fact because everything understandably has a slightly negative feel about the tournament in general. That’s not a space I personally want to be in because I can’t afford it. I have to think about how we can win this for our country.”
The message was that fans and players should be able to enjoy football. “I really don’t know what the reality of that home is like,” Southgate said. “I know how everything seems to be directed, but I don’t know if the public feels that way. Without being in the pubs and bars and working class clubs I don’t know. I imagine a lot of them just hope to get on with football.
“It would be wrong to say that is final. We are looking forward to it, the players are extremely motivated for it. They recognize everything else. But they don’t have to be ashamed to be excited. It’s not their decision that we play here. They now have to concentrate on what they have control over and that is our training and performance.”
James Maddison, who again missed practice on Sunday with a knee injury, will be absent against Iran and the game is likely to come too early for Kyle Walker after returning from groin surgery.
The challenge for Southgate will be to take the game to Carlos Queiroz’s side, who is notoriously difficult to break down, and he is considering starting with a back-four rather than a back-three. Bukayo Saka could beat Phil Foden for a spot on the right wing.
Saka made an excellent impression from the bench during England’s 3-3 draw with Germany in September, netting a fine goal for Mason Mount. Southgate felt England, struggling after seizing the opportunity to experiment with individuals and tactics last summer, was closer to itself against Germany.
In addition to focusing on tactical preparations, England have put a lot of emphasis on acclimatizing to the heat of Qatar during training. The Sunday session was scheduled to mirror the Monday game, kicking off at 4pm local time, and conditions were cooler than the previous days. The air conditioning will also be on in the stadium.
“We know the quality of our opponents,” said Southgate. “Under Carlos at the last World Cup they were a very organized team against very big opponents. We have to be the very best version of ourselves to win.”