England captain Harry Kane vies for the ball with Poland’s Jan Bednarek
For Gareth Southgate, it’s almost going a little too well. The England manager can’t help but compare it to this time last year, when Harry Maguire had been arrested, Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were banished from the squad and results took a stutter.
“It’s been a lot more straightforward than last September was, that’s for certain,” Southgate laughs. “There are days where you’re having a quiet day and I used to think: ‘Okay, what’s going to happen?’ You go looking for problems when actually you might as well just enjoy those days and have an extra 20 minutes on the sofa because you know the challenges will come.”
England are currently rolling right over any challenge in their way. They have won successive games 4-0, and the next away to Poland could well put the team on the brink of qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
“We can really take a positive step towards the World Cup if we win in Warsaw, so it’s a high level of motivation.”
Even the disgraceful racism suffered in Hungary ended up merely displaying the character of these players. Whereas similar incidents in Bulgaria understandably unsettled them in the past, they have since taken the view that it is best to just forge ahead; to show that these are significant social problems for other people to address. They will still make the statements they want to make, but that includes persevering with performance in the face of anything.
They aren’t going to let other people’s issues disrupt their enjoyment of meeting up with the England camp. That’s one thing that stands out right now, and what many people around the group noticed on the return to St George’s Park after Euro 2020.
It was like a group of old friends back together. It has bonded the team, both in terms of spirit and cohesiveness on the pitch.
And while many might scoff at this given how meaningless it is to the game that really mattered, the Euro 2020 final, there is a strong argument that England are the world’s form team right now. They have just slipped back into top gear after the summer, unlike both Spain and Italy.
It actually bears a resemblance to the early stages of the German 2008-16 generation. They suffered a series of late-tournament setbacks, but displayed an incredible consistency outside of that.
From Euro 2008 to the 2014 World Cup, Joachim Low’s Germany side won 27 out of 30 qualifying games. England are currently on 20 from 23 since the start of the 2018 qualifiers, to go with the solidity shown through five wins from seven in Euro 2020.
Gareth Southgate wants England to achieve the consistency of other major nations in recent times
Southgate puts it down to the stability within squads of such stature.
“Whenever we watched Belgium over a long period, France over a long period, Germany when they were being successful, Spain, there were very rarely changes. We were amazed. We were constantly having to chop and change because we never had people fit. It’s been great to have that stability of selection and I think all of the players understand and recognise that when the team are going well that’s the challenge, the lads that are in the team know that there are very good players in the squad to challenge every day in training and if there is any dip then they are there.”
It is also why this trip to Poland has something of an edge. Aside from the fact England will be virtually unassailable at the top of the group if they win – going eight points clear of Poland with victory – it might consequently represent England’s last truly competitive fixture until the World Cup itself.
March is sectioned off for the play-offs, meaning anyone who has qualified will have friendlies, and the Nations League then fills the June and September breaks before Qatar. Enjoyable as Uefa’s mini competition is, it still doesn’t reach the levels of properly testing games.
Perhaps this is what Southgate is getting at. It is a long time to try and keep this form.
“As a team, we have to recognise that we’re in a good moment and the team are playing well,” he said. “While it’s enjoyable to be with this team at the moment because of the things you’ve mentioned, that also can be a dangerous moment, if we allow standards to slip in any way.”
England must beware of the threat posed by Poland striker Robert Lewandowski
Poland of course have precisely the player to punish them in Robert Lewandowski, as well as the edge of motivation. While they naturally think they can overhaul England in this group, there is a real sense of regret that they under-performed in two successive tournaments: the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020.
That is almost illustrated by their display at Wembley in March. Without Lewandowski, Poland really put it up to England, and it was so different to the unconvincing appearances of the summer.
Southgate’s solid defence, which has kept 11 clean sheets so far in 2021, will consequently face a challenge they haven’t really come up against yet. That is one of the game’s few prime strikers. None of their Euro 2020 opponents had anything close to Lewandowski, Harry Kane or Romelu Lukaku – who Southgate feels are still in a class of their own.
“They are the three that immediately spring to mind when you talk about players who are a focal point of the team, as a No9, with the goalscoring records that they have. They all play slightly differently although I see a lot of comparables with Lewandowksi and Kane in the way they come deeper, receive play, play teammates in, play those excellent passes as well as their finishing capabilities and their range of finishing.
“There are without doubt similarities. When you’re preparing to play an opponent, you have to pay that little bit more attention to their individual attributes because your defenders have got to be aware and ready for that challenge.
“Yes, we prepare some specifics around Lewandowski, but it’s the whole team we’ve got to be ready for.”
England have close to a full squad themselves. It’s all going so well. Poland have a chance to disrupt that. From recent history, though, England look ready for the challenge.
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