It was five years ago that Gareth Southgate took managerial charge of England for the first time – then as a caretaker against Malta at Wembley – and one particular detail has never left him. That it was a struggle to convince some players to join up. They did not want to play for England.
Spool forward to the current World Cup qualifying window. England are in the tiny Pyrenean principality of Andorra (population: 77,000) to face an awkward assignment on the artificial pitch at the 3,300-capacity Estadi Nacional before Tuesday’s Wembley tie against Hungary and one plot line sums up how things have changed.
When Southgate offered late calls to Ben Chilwell, James Ward-Prowse and Tammy Abraham, each was there like a shot.
“The most important thing of my five years has been the connection with the fans and coming back from the lack of confidence and a sort of apathy,” Southgate said. “Trying to get players to come … we had pull-outs at the first camp. I’d only taken over temporarily but there were several players that weren’t interested in coming. Now the players are desperate to be a part of it, even if they haven’t quite been in the initial squad.”
To repeat. This is Andorra, the kind of challenge that big-name England players could be forgiven for not wanting to prioritise, one in which they would seem to have little to gain and plenty to lose.
Rafael Benítez, the Everton manager, called it a “nothing game” as he leaned on Southgate not to pick Jordan Pickford, the goalkeeper who has just recovered from a shoulder problem, and there are other Premier League managers who, privately, feel the same way. That puts pressure on the players.
Plainly, there is a risk of injury on the hard and unfamiliar surface – especially against a physical Andorra team who do not hold back even with yellow cards to their names – and it is one of those occasions when only a comfortable victory will do. Andorra are ranked 156 in the world, between New Caledonia and the Dominican Republic. They have won eight games in their 25-year history – four qualifiers, four friendlies.
But Southgate and his players have come to see possibilities rather than pitfalls; Andorra as a staging post to the ultimate goal. The manager’s journey has taken in rebuilding, particularly in terms of self-belief, and optimism and progress, best measured by the runs to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals and the European Championship final this past summer. Everything is geared towards taking the last step in Qatar next year.
“We know where we want to go, we know there’s a World Cup around the corner,” said Kieran Trippier, who will captain a much rotated team against Andorra. “There are different challenges here, like the pitch, but there are no excuses. We are ready. Everybody’s mentality is to win.”
The pitch has had a bad press, with Gareth Bale’s comments from 2014, after he had played on it with Wales, being dug up during the week. Bale described it as the worst surface he had played on. Happily for England, that pitch was dug up and relaid in 2019, making it – in Southgate’s words – “more up to date”. He also made the point that England would benefit from a surface that enabled them to move the ball quickly.
Behind showing the correct mentality, that is what Southgate most wants to see – a fluid, assertive display, in which his team do not only play to feet but get runners in behind. It is imperative that they stretch and break what is likely to be a 10-man defensive effort.
“An observation from the matches I have seen on this surface would be that the risk is you always play to feet,” Southgate said. “We have to make sure we play as much of our normal game as we can.”
Southgate noted that when England beat Andorra 4-0 at Wembley last month – they cut loose with three goals in the closing stages – the ball was in play for 38 minutes. That figure has to be higher and England need to make the pitch as big as possible so that their technical players can find a way through. It feels as though it is an important game for Jadon Sancho, who has started the season slowly after his move to Manchester United from Borussia Dortmund.
“We will need players who are good in one-against-one situations and able to take their opponents out of the game – also players who can get in between the lines and manipulate things,” Southgate said.
“That was the important factor at the end of the game at Wembley that finally got those areas opened up. It’s more of a [number] 10 profile than the eights that are needed for us in this instance.”