Down in the Al Bayt stadium, players rushed from their dressing rooms to the team coaches who would take them across the desert back to Doha. Gareth Southgate was talking behind a barrier.
Barriers have become useful to him. He’s started setting them up in his head and even in his hotel room at the English base, where he has a rule that he doesn’t turn on his television set.
His team had just been outplayed by the USA in their second group game of this World Cup, but even if the performance was as flat and uninspiring as the 6-2 win over Iran was brilliant and entertaining, the 0-0 draw keeps England top of their pool and need just one point against Wales on Tuesday night to qualify for the last 16.
Gareth Southgate has enjoyed great success since taking charge of England in 2016
Southgate has already guided England to a 2018 World Cup semi-final and Euro 2020 final
Perspective is a dirty word in the heat of these competitions, but it’s worth remembering that England were already knocked out at this stage of the 2014 World Cup.
Fortunes ebb and flow in tournaments, but for those who have convinced themselves England would have won the 2018 World Cup and European Championship in 2021 had Southgate not been in charge, the stalemate against the US was another sign of the apocalypse.
Southgate knew the result would make noise. He knew that although England had broken away against Iran, the goalless draw against Gregg Berhalter’s side would immediately revive accusations that he was an over-cautious manager who suppressed England’s great talents.
At Euro 2020, Jack Grealish was the savior Southgate would ignore. Phil Foden has already been anointed in that role at this tournament.
England limped to a lifeless 0-0 draw against USA in their second World Cup group stage match
The Three Lions manager (right) relies on experienced members of his squad in Qatar
Southgate blocked all of that. He said he had told his players not to be disappointed by the result. He had told them that they were one step closer to their first goal of qualifying for the knockout stage.
Few teams have the sort of seamless group stage progress Southgate envisioned at the last World Cup and European Championship and this was just a minor bump in the road.
“I’m lucky,” he said when asked about the criticism that would come his way. ‘I’m locked up in a hotel with no television. But I don’t need to see it because I know what it will be. It is a conscious withdrawal on my part.
‘Cause if I listen to everything, I’ll go crazy or you’ll start to doubt yourself and listen to too many things.
Team captain Harry Kane (center) is expected to score goals for his country in Qatar
“I am clear about how we should be and about the decisions we need to make. We’re not going to get every decision right and so if there’s criticism of certain calls then so be it.
But if you had said to me, ‘Four points from the two games, goal difference where it is’, I knew it was going to be a tough game tonight. We would have liked to win and get the job done, but we couldn’t, so we have to do it again.
“The criticism is another layer of learning and hardening. I have gained enough experience over the years to serve me well for this job. I’ve come here to enjoy this tournament as much as possible and to make sure that is transferred to the players because I think that gives us the best chance to do well. I like the group of players we have here.
Jude Bellingham has emerged as an England starter at this year’s World Cup in Qatar
“I think we can keep improving in different areas every game. Today we were better defensively than last night against Iran, but we didn’t quite have the same offensive power. If we can get all those things together, we’ll have a very strong team.’
Anti-Southgate hysteria aside, it would be just as foolish to damn England as no-hopers after the US match as it would be to cheer them on as world beaters after beating Iran.
If they win the group, they will probably face Senegal or Ecuador in the second round. Both are good teams and England would have to play much better than the United States to win. If they slip against Wales and finish second, they will likely face the Netherlands, which would be a tougher test.
But that’s the deal. Southgate will be gutted if England fail to reach the quarter-finals because he is raising the bar higher than it has been for England for over half a century and because England have a fine squad. If they get to the last eight, world champions France may be waiting.
Southgate could win over some of his opponents if England win that, but he won’t hold his breath. And given England’s record in knockout matches against major nations, neither will his opponents.
For now, he is focusing on Wales. He knows they will come flying to England with nothing to lose and with the furious and desperate intentions of wounded animals and he is confident that England will pass the test.
England will top their World Cup group if they beat Wales on Tuesday in Qatar
Southgate (left) knows he will be under immense pressure if England fail to win their group
“You have to play three games. You must be willing to do that. We’re going to knockout matches after all, so you have to be able to handle those moments. When you’ve had as much flak as I have, you don’t really care about anything more.’
Predictably, Southgate was inundated with criticism for bringing in Jordan Henderson to replace Jude Bellingham 20 minutes from the end against the US, but Bellingham looked tired after his brilliant performance against Iran and, in the context of a game in which England were still outplayed, Henderson’s introduction stopped the bleeding. It was a good substitution, but because it wasn’t Foden, it was laughed at.
“We know all about the passion it takes against Wales,” said Southgate, “but we have to play well. We are going to play against an opponent who is injured and, like everyone else, desperate to beat the English.
But his squad will be determined to bounce back from Friday’s flat stalemate with the US
“We know what that will be. We have to play an intelligent game and play well. Adjust the mind.
“I would be very disappointed if someone told me that their players want it more than ours. I would ask questions about what we stand for and what we’ve been for five years. We need a point to qualify. If we take three points, we’ll be at the top of the group.
“If we want to get to the tournament stage, we have to show many different sides of our character, personality and ability.
“This is a tournament like no other for noise and we need to make sure we really stay calm. I know what the noise will be after the draw with the US, but we will continue.’