England are only two games into this World Cup and some critics are already talking about Gareth Southgate’s side being a poor Jekyll & Hyde team.
In the opener, they thrashed Iran, then worked to a 0-0 draw against the US on Friday. They went from 13 shots in the opener, seven on target and six goals, to three shots on target and no goals.
I’ve been in this game long enough not to get upset about such reactions. I’m totally cool with what happened, and so is Gareth. Let me give you a few reasons why a negative comment is wrong in so many ways.
The negative reactions to England’s 0-0 deadlock with the US in the group stage are wrong
Gareth Southgate will be delighted to have been given a clean sheet after defeat to Iran
England are top of Group B today and a victory over Wales on Tuesday will see them through as group winners. A draw would probably do the same, while even a defeat would probably take them to the knockout stage. Hardly a disaster.
This is tournament football. Some days you’re on fire and then you’re a wet squib. Friday was a tough game against a young American team brimming with speed and talent, from Gio Reyna to Weston McKennie. England did not give in.
You probably saw Gareth give his interview after beating Iran 6-2 and he looked a bit grumpy and said he was annoyed with the way the match had ended. This was not just some psychological trick to control the obvious euphoria many would feel. He would have been quite annoyed if he had to take two, even in a lightning fast win.
As a professional, clean sheets are important. They are a sign that you work together as a team, just as eager to keep goals out as to contribute to scoring as a group.
In a competitive situation, not least the Premier League, goals conceded can ultimately make all the difference to where you finish, or even whether you stay in the division. They are important in the group stage of a tournament for the same reason. That’s why England’s 6-2 was good but flawed, and why the 0-0 was flawed but good.
Some fans have a short memory; it wasn’t until June last year that England ended a second group game at a tournament with a 0-0 draw that sparked a backlash. That was against Scotland at the European Championship. Naturally, England then reached a final that was decided on penalties.
England captain Harry Kane has yet to find the net during the tournament in Qatar
The Three Lions have a tremendous amount of depth to call upon throughout the competition
The end result in Qatar is what matters and what England should be judged by, and the process was never going to be smooth. If you are a football fan, you should know that football doesn’t work like that!
England needed a good start and they delivered. I was confident before the game and last week I named specific players I expected to flourish, including Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Raz Sterling and Marcus Rashford. And they did.
You need a strong team to go deep into tournaments and England has one. You need players who can impress when they come on and they did that against Iran. Marcus scored as a substitute, as did Jack Grealish on a selfless pass from fellow substitute Callum Wilson.
Squad depth gives you options for different situations and England will have several more different situations in Qatar.
I’ve seen people ask why Gareth didn’t make more changes against the US, not least why he didn’t bring in Phil Foden. All I can say is that there are always explanations and reasons that will not be apparent from the outside.
Southgate made the brave decision to leave Phil Foden on the bench for the entire game
The performance against Iran, which was less than a week ago, don’t forget (!), was authentically England, a show of what they can do when they’re in the groove. Bellingham was brilliant in his first World Cup. And he is still a child. Harry Kane did not score but showed what else he can bring.
The USA brought another challenge and the match also had positives, not least another very good performance from Harry Maguire. He has always been reliable for England: stable, experienced and a threat at set pieces. And even dribbling in the USA box on Friday! Gareth trusts him.
Maguire is mentally strong and has shown he can handle all the setbacks that come with swings in club form and confidence. I was at United with him and I talked to him about the ups and downs we all face. He can handle it and I expect him to make an important contribution to this event.
Harry Maguire is mentally strong and has handled the pressure from England well lately
AL-DAWSARI PROVES THAT HAPPINESS IS THE KEY
The two biggest shocks in the opening days of this World Cup were Argentina’s defeat to Saudi Arabia and Germany’s defeat to Japan. The winners in those matches both came from the Asian Football Association. Both came from behind to beat teams with huge World Cup pedigrees. And both wins were absolutely deserved.
Every team at this tournament, with the possible exception of hosts Qatar, entered on a footballing basis. To assume that a nation is poor because you happen to know little about it is not smart.
Salem Al-Dawsari scored Saudi’s second goal against Argentina, a stunning strike. He is 31 and plays at Al Hilal in Riyadh. Many people will assume that if he is good he would play in Europe. Well, he played on loan at Villarreal and helped them from behind against Real Madrid in 2018.
He also scored the winner in the 2019 Champions League — the AFC Champions League. Why is he with Hilal? He’s been there since he started. The club has been his life. They have won more awards than any club in the Asian confederation. He makes millions. Maybe he’s just happy and happiness is key.
Salem Al-Dawsari scored an unforgettable winner against Argentina in Saudi Arabia’s opener
ENGLAND DEMOCRATIC PLAYLIST
There are many things about being a professional soccer player that I am grateful for, whether that be the opportunity to travel, network with business people, or meet high achievers from other walks of life.
Perhaps the most famous non-football player I’ve come to know is Canadian rapper and actor Drake. But I would say the one aspect of the game that I love the most is the atmosphere in a locker room, from the music we share to the team spirit.
In the English camp, music is chosen democratically. Each player is allowed to choose two songs for the iPod playlist and it will be played in random order. The offer is wide, from hip-hop and rap to Coldplay!