The problem with England’s greatest strength? Senegal also have it



It’s a unique unity that carries a team through, that ensures setbacks don’t sap the group and doubt doesn’t seep in.

“I’d say the togetherness of this group is the closest it’s been,” Henderson says. “I thought Russia was close at the time but we’ve been through things together. In Russia, [gone] through the Euros, and experiences like that do make you stronger. I feel we’re in a really good place together at the moment, a really good team spirit, the work ethic and intensity in training, pushing each other on.”

That is also something that Gareth Southgate has intentionally fostered and arguably doesn’t get enough credit for. If the criticisms that he is too tactically rigid or unimaginative are fair, there is an argument those flaws are offset by the mentality and atmosphere he creates within the group. The same is said of Didier Deschamps by French players.

He is going to need all of that now because this is going to be a distinctive test. It may even be England’s hardest challenge, in particular ways. This is not to say that Southgate’s side will go on and win the World Cup or are comparable to Spain 2010, but it does pose a similar sort of test to that which the eventual champions faced in Paraguay in the quarter-finals 12 years ago. Vicente del Bosque’s players faced more talented teams but they all still talk about that match as the most gruelling of their entire World Cup.

Senegal may well be similar. With Kalidou Koulibaly leading a strong backline, and a robust three-man midfield in front of them, Aliou Cisse’s side are going to be exceptionally difficult to break down.

Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly scored the winner against Ecuador and now has England in his sights

Those who believe Southgate has mostly gotten lucky as a manager with forgiving runs may well point to Sadio Mane’s injury and the suspension of Idrissa Gueye as another stroke of fortune, in the same way that James Rodriguez was injured for Colombia at this exact stage of the World Cup four years ago. There is no argument it removes Senegal’s cutting edge. It also seems likely that Cisse will be absent on the day through illness.

At the same time, the very spirit that the manager has fostered means such setbacks serve as rallying calls. They deepen the spirit. That’s the element that Henderson recognised. The issues may also focus the tactical approach, as it means Senegal have to play a very specific way. The problems they have encountered have created a counterintuitive clarity, one that was distilled in Koulibaly’s smooth strike to win the match against Ecuador and put them into the last 16.

Against that, Southgate also faces a tactical test. The game isn’t so clear for him. What he must do isn’t so obvious, except when it comes to the make-up of the midfield.

The fact Senegal play with three, in that shape, means Southgate has little option but to play three of his own in Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Henderson. To do anything else would be brave, or risky, especially given the danger of Ismaila Sarr getting down the left.

It will have the effect of removing a place for one of England’s many attacking options, and that in a game where Southgate is likely to need both patience and intricacy. Who he starts with will be more important than any game so far but, as the group stage has shown, not crucial.

This is the great benefit of so many options, and why it is probably wrong to just view a starting XI as the fixed thing it used to be. Football has changed, with five substitutes only furthering this. Rugby coach Eddie Jones has been mentioned a lot around the England camp this week, but his especially his description of “finishers”.

Phil Foden came off the bench against Iran, was unused vs USA, then started and scored against Wales

Those who don’t start are no longer seen as “substitutes”. They’re players that can come in to change the dynamic. It is another distinctive advantage England have in this tournament, that the players believe is only matched by Brazil, and maybe France.

If Marcus Rashford or Phil Foden don’t open you with pace and ingenuity, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka can get at with you pure dribbling and directness.

Some of this has also served Southgate’s attempts to foster a spirit. It means that everyone feels involved, everyone knows they have a chance of making an impact.

“The people that don’t particularly play as much [but] train every day, I have always felt they are really important in tournament football – always, even more so now with the five subs,” Henderson says. “It enhances that a bit more. It’s always important to support the lads that are playing but also support the lads who aren’t playing, who are working every day, come in to training pushing the lads who are playing. Maybe not playing as much as they’d like, it can be really difficult at times. It is important we support each other and we have done really, really well, not just this tournament but the last one as well.

“No matter what stage the game is at, you always need your subs to come on and perform straight away at the highest level.”

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The basic truth of this game is that England must go to another level. This is where the World Cup gets serious, where any slip is fatal. There is nothing like it in sport, because there’s nothing like the World Cup. All of that joy and momentum can be undone in an instant. Going for everything can leave you with nothing.

It is why that unique unity is so important. The problem for England is that Senegal have it, too.

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