England might have conceded a late goal to prevent a badly-needed win, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from some of the reactions within Wembley afterwards. The players were embracing, and this wasn’t consolation. It was conviction, recognition of achievement, and a sense of coming together.
It was the same feeling they’d had in the team hotel just before this stirring 3-3 draw with Germany. There, the senior players organised the sort of meeting that may well come to be seen as a key moment, if England actually do fulfil their potential in Qatar.
The team leaders had been conscious of an anxiety gripping this group for the first time, and wanted to change it. Gareth Southgate was only too willing to encourage this.
“We stay on track,” was the message. “We stay calm. We’ve been through moments like this before. We stay at it.”
That was precisely what happened in the comeback against Germany. The England team did show a resilience, as they also started to play rousing football.
It was why the initial flurry that brought three quick goals has left a more lasting impression than Kai Havertz’s late equaliser.
That goal can be written off as one of those moments. This was more about the collective, as well as a solid spell of good football.
It is a more substantial base to build on than a mere result, especially given the Nations League itself had essentially been written off. It is why no one is too concerned about a six-game winless run. The way international football works – especially in the modern game – is that it is really only tournaments that leave any kind of impression. No one will remember any of this at all if England go out and beat Iran in that opening game.
Southgate himself spoke of how this had been “a really strange period, so many teams are up in the air”.
That is still true of England but the difference now is that spell against Germany has offered them a positive feeling for the eight weeks between now and the World Cup.
The anxiety is gone. They’re looking forward to the camp with more hope, convinced by the ideas.
This was another of the more significant elements of the last few days, which represented this crucial last meet-up before the real business begins.
Southgate left the squad in no doubt about the preferred system, or the likely starters. He persisted with the three-man backline, albeit with much more force going forward, certainly in that second half. The full-backs actually played as wing backs, which makes a considerable difference, as Luke Shaw probably played his way into the team. Bukayo Saka meanwhile showed he has arguably been wasted in that area, but also illustrated he could currently be best as an impact sub.
Either way, the system will persist, certainly in the biggest games.
Southgate made this clear when asked about the goals conceded. He was unequivocal.
“I don’t think the system is responsible for any of the goals, I think that is clear. We were a bit naïve on the counter for the second, and the first and the third are individual errors. What pleased me was the threat we had playing in that system.
“People are going to have an opinion but I think it is the best way for us. If I am going to be a wishy-washy change my mind then it is pointless me doing it. I think the players are committed to it, they know the more they play it, the more comfortable they will be and the more challenges opponents pose the more they get used to dealing with it.”
There are still problems to deal with, of course. Southgate said he was “very” encouraged but obviously wasn’t going to get carried away.
Jude Bellingham further grew into his midfield role, although fine-tuning with the rest of the team is naturally required. England need to work on more of those connections between defensive core and that attack. There’s then the player who now faces the greatest criticism of all, and is probably the biggest issue of all.
Harry Maguire was partly at fault for two of the goals, both displaying why he has been dropped from the Manchester United side and how he is suffering for not being in it.
This is again where Southgate only stressed the same message, though: focus, belief, trust.
“I know everyone will focus on Harry but there were some very good moments Harry has delivered in the last two matches. Luke is an outstanding footballer, so do we not pick him because he doesn’t play? We have to back our best footballers unless it is untenable.”
That is going to be one of the big questions over the next few weeks. Is the decision the same if Maguire is barely playing by then?
It is why Southgate’s eight weeks is going to be filled with so much analysis, more than anything else. It is also why a positive feeling tonight was so important.
It doesn’t leave the players wondering in this wait. There is hope again. There was a feeling of celebration again.
Southgate laughed as he spoke of how everyone remembered what it was like to score, but you could see he was buzzing. So were the players as they filed by him while he was doing some of his press duties.
There were warm embraces from Phil Foden, among others. There was togetherness. There was, as the manager summed up, “spirit”.
That is the feeling the players will be left with before they next step out onto the pitch. That just so happens to be at the Khalifa International Stadium, for the opening World Cup match against Iran.
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