England are roaring, and Gareth Southgate is the ideal man to keep them grounded
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It could have been so very different. England have made a habit in recent World Cups of slogging their way through their opening fixture. Four years ago they had to wait until stoppage time to snatch a win against Tunisia. In 2014, they lost to Italy. In 2010, they drew with the USA and Algeria. Need I go on?
And yet, on Monday afternoon, as half the country took conveniently timed lunch breaks that may or may not have lasted two hours, the Three Lions arrived in Qatar with the kind of roaring performance that gives rise to optimism and unease in equal measure. Scoring six goals in any match is always a welcome novelty. To do so in the first game of a major tournament against an Iran side who currently sit 20th in the FIFA World rankings was quite the buzz.
Of course, such delights come with a cautionary note of perspective. It’s just one game, we still conceded twice, and, to be fair, Iran, despite their lofty standing in FIFA’s estimations, aren’t exactly the Harlem Globetrotters. And yet... Only the coldest of cynics, the dourest of doomsayers, could fail to be enthused by England’s performance yesterday; the assured swagger with which they slowly tightened their chokehold on the game, the ruthless efficiency of their lethal goal haul, the ceaseless, dizzying passages of movement, like a warren of Duracell bunnies playing eleven concurrent games of Pong. At times, Gareth Southgate’s men were so sharp that you got the impression Iran barely even felt their slicing blows. Or at least, they didn’t until it was too late.
Individually, there were several stories of redemption, and many more of pleasing consistency. Bukayo Saka’s brace was fitting reward for an irrepressible young talent who has shown remarkable resolve to move past the atrocious racist abuse he had to endure after last summer’s Euro 2020 final. Likewise, Marcus Rashford flew like an uncaged bird as he came on from the bench to score. Raheem Sterling, so underwhelming for Chelsea this season, put on the kind of exhibition we have come to expect from him in an England shirt, and Callum Wilson, making a first international appearance since 2019, showed superhuman selflessness to assist Jack Grealish for the sixth. Even Harry Maguire, by and large, impressed, before going off in the second half through illness.
Elsewhere, Kieran Trippier justified his selection over Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back, Declan Rice prowled the shadowy depths of the engine room like the illegitimate love child of Predator and a robotic vacuum cleaner, and Harry Kane, dropping into space as he so masterfully does these days, pulled more strings than an octopus puppeteer. (The octopus is the puppeteer, by the way. The puppet, in this case, is Iran’s wheezing backline.)
Special praise, however, must be reserved for Jude Bellingham. The teenager - and sometimes it is so easy to forget that he is just a teenager - was nothing short of sublime. He may be the missing link, the one of whom the prophecy foretold; a midfielder capable of linking attack and defence with a gliding effortlessness, who can dictate tempo and squeeze out of tightening spaces like smoke escaping a phonebox. The fact that he marked such a mature display on the grandest stage of all with his first England goal was just the powdered sugar on top of the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake.
But again, perspective. These are still early, early days, and infinitely more challenging contests lie ahead. This is where you would imagine Gareth Southgate now comes into his own. Frequently maligned for his pragmatism and conservatism, there is a reason why, on precarious terrain, level heads often prevail. The England manager has proven that he knows how to kindle the burgeoning emotion and expectations of a squad and a nation while still keeping things at least relatively grounded.
How long this initial elation will last, who can say? Hopefully we come through the other side of Friday’s clash against the USA with it firmly intact. There’s a long, long way to go, that much is irrefutable, but on their first showing, England may just have hinted that they have enough about them to stick around for a little while yet.