It is a rare touch of mischief from Gareth Southgate, that also hints at some edge. The England manager is asked how conscious he is of Wales’s attitude to England, and the videos of, say, the squad celebrating the elimination to Iceland in Euro 2016. It does seem like easy motivation.
“I couldn’t say,” Southgate smiles. “We are aware of some of that but I couldn’t say if we would use it or not…”
If that would be an old trick, it would be for a new fixture. This is the first time that any of the United Kingdom teams have ever met at a World Cup, sharpening the edge around England’s slim chances of going out and Wales’s slim chances of going through.
Southgate is a friend of Eddie Jones, and a keen listener to what he has to say, so has been especially attuned to how the England rugby union manager has spoken about how the other home nations raise themselves for the fixture. Southgate felt something similar in the Euro 2020 group game with Scotland last summer.
“Physically, they found a level they hadn’t found before and couldn’t find in the game after,” he said. “So that is the nature of this game. But you have to ride through that and make sure our quality counts and we are composed in our play. You have to match the spirit and display, the quality with the ball that allows us to be ruthless.”
This is the simple fact framing the entire match. England have much better players, and a group potentially coming to a peak. Wales are a lesser side than two or six years ago – when England beat them in the Euro 2016 group stage – and very visibly on the downside of a cycle. There is a staleness.
This might just be the kind of match to temporarily spark them out of that, though, and “Land of our Fathers” will rarely feel as emotional as in a World Cup game against England with elimination on the line. Southgate can’t help but admire that, but disputed the idea that the Welsh squad feel more strongly about playing for their country than his players.
“They have a great anthem to be fair. It’s stirring. I think if people want to say that, then no problem – but they wouldn’t know our dressing room very well, or any of the England dressing rooms I was in as a player. That’s an easy narrative for people to say but it’s not my experience of it.”
As much as Southgate stressed that England still need to actually secure qualification, it’s implicit that this game is about so much more. It’s about the manager trying to find the chemistry that fires his team, after what has been a strange group so far. England are in a comfortable position but don’t feel commanding, despite scoring six goals in one match. The constrained performance against the USA seemed to immediately halt momentum, as if Southgate got so concerned about the two goals conceded to Iran that he decided to try and ensure nothing similar could happen. If so, it only ensured England had no real zip other than Bukayo Saka going around the outside.
“No two games are the same,” Southgate said. “We recognise we are focusing on our performance, we have to play well. We want to put the two parts of our game together. We have shown in the first game how we can attack. We showed another side to ourselves in the second game, and we have to merge those things as we go through the tournament to be a serious contender in the championship.”
Again, it’s about so much more than Wales. The bigger question is whether England can be so much more than they are, and how much is dependent on the personnel: specifically, Phil Foden.
Southgate was insistent the Manchester City playmaker is “going to play a big part in this tournament, there is no doubt in my mind about that”.
If so, why hasn’t he been used? Southgate explained his rationale while referring to a similar discussion in the past about Jack Grealish.
“Well, we scored six in the first game. We did not have a different discussion about how we wanted to play ahead of the second game. Yes, we could have changed the starting team, but decided to go with the team that attacked so well. We faced a team that defended differently, more athletic, covered more ground than any team we have played in the last six years.
“We have Jack who, 18 months ago, I was being murdered for not using. Marcus [Rashford], we feel has been in really good strength. Phil of course is a player we love who can change games as well. Had we put Phil on and he hadn’t scored, we would have been talking about Jack or Marcus. That’s a little bit where we are. I’m not going to change that. I know for a lot of people they have decided how it is and I’ve just got to keep making the decision that gives us the best chance of winning.”
Southgate was otherwise effusive about Foden but pointed to how the context of his role for Manchester City is different to that for England. This is undeniable and points to a different approach to coaching. While Foden is in a highly sophisticated role for Pep Guardiola where there is constant fluidity and movement, that isn’t the case for England. It is much more rigid, which is why Southgate talked of how he couldn’t use him in midfield.
“We’re happy with how he is, we’re happy with how he is training. He’s bright, he’s ready and he’s a good player. We’re blessed we’ve got some exciting players. Sometimes the discussion around just plopping him in as a [No] 10 in every game isn’t realistic, because in a game like the other night you have to have the ball, and there are defensive responsibilities that he doesn’t have to do at his club. From the wide area, it’s different, the defensive responsibility is different. He’s got defensive responsibility but the role is different. In the 10 you have to cover a lot more ground and be a lot more aware of the spaces without the ball. If that bit of pressure isn’t right, then they are through you and into your backline. That is why we didn’t put him in as a 10 the other night.
“There are games where there isn’t that same tactical challenge in midfield. There might be a little bit more freedom and that might be the slot he can go and express himself. But his club don’t do that, so there must be a reason for that. But he’s a great option for us in two or three different positions and he will have a big impact in games.
“But also we have to be careful because we are putting a lot of pressure on him now. We’re a team and we need all of the players, and they can all play a part, but not any one of them is the reason we will win or lose. And we need to make sure we are not building Phil into a situation where actually, if he steps on the pitch, this is becoming really difficult for him because the level of expectation is beyond a young guy who is still establishing himself internationally, in a different environment from his club where you’re comfortable with all the players you play with.
“It’s really distinctive: You’re going home every night, you’re calm with everything else [at club level]; this is still a unique environment. He is still a really young player and he’s doing brilliantly well and we love him to bits. We also have got to look after him a bit as well.”
Southgate did hint Trent Alexander-Arnold could finally be used if this game gets frustrating.
“He is definitely a player who could do it against a team that sits back, but that’s not how I saw the game against the States. I don’t think they sat back at all, I think they were aggressive in their pressure and athletic. I didn’t see the game in the same way you did.”
It’s why he doesn’t see the argument about resting Harry Kane, either.
“We haven’t qualified yet.”
That’s what this match will decide, but it could also point to the future. It is about much more than a parochial derby.