Gareth Southgate delivered the line with a smile. “We’ve had to get through Qatari politics, Iranian politics … and a bit of tactical work on the pitch.” What the England manager wanted to say more explicitly was obvious.
After all the controversies which have overshadowed this World Cup it was time for him and his players to embrace the reason why they are here. And while sensitive to the various issues, none of them ought to be embarrassed or conflicted about feeling a surge of excitement before Monday’s tournament opener against Iran.
If there is a recognition that Iran could be a tough nut to crack – Carlos Queiroz’s team will be compact and difficult to break down – Southgate is confident that England are ready. That is because of the psychological work he has prioritised since getting his players together. “We’ve got to make sure we know what our intent is, what our mindset is – we’ve focused on that as much as we have the tactical and technical,” Southgate said, and by that he meant a drive on three specific fronts.
There is the one to compartmentalise the negativity around these finals; another to banish that which has dogged his team since the summer, when a testing and potentially demoralising Nations League campaign began. And, finally, it has been vital to reset after the pause in the European club season.
“Our challenge was we were coming off the back of league matches last weekend with a lot going on, loads of games in a short period of time, lots of tactical meetings for them at their clubs, so we took the first couple of days to clear the brain as much as anything,” Southgate said.
“To be able to park whatever has been going well with a club or not so well … there are lots of different individuals in different spaces. And then to get a real focus on our group, getting them back together to enjoy the first couple of days.”
Enjoyment has been the watchword. The environment at the team hotel in Al Wakrah has been tailored to help the players relax. The Football Association hopes that the small details will make the difference, such as putting photographs of the players’ loved ones in their bedrooms.
Southgate’s training was calibrated to be light upon arrival, then briefly harder for heat acclimatisation purposes before he eased off again allowing the players, in his words, to “taper for the game”. Everything has been condensed, boiled down for this most unusual of buildups.
The manager has told his squad that it is not their fault that the tournament is in Qatar, making it pretty clear what he thinks of the decision. What he has wanted to play up is the rare position in which they find themselves: representing England at a major tournament, the fulfilment of boyhood dreams.
Southgate has stressed that message, as his assistant Steve Holland has done as well. Indeed Prince William did likewise in an address to the squad at St George’s Park before their departure. There have been other speeches and video presentations, with Southgate saying: “You have to remind yourself of this moment in time.” Performance will come with freedom and awareness.
“Tournament football is different,” Southgate said. “Germany have always been one of the prime examples of that. That’s how we need to be, really.”
The Germans have been on Southgate’s mind, partly because of the Nations League and also because of their outstanding tournament record. “We want to be a Germany,” he said. “When I was looking at their Wikipedia page, it was four golds, four silvers, four bronzes at World Cups. European Championships: three golds, three silvers, three bronzes. Our page didn’t quite look like that but we’d love it if it did in 40 years’ time and that should be our aim, to be consistently challenging.”
To this end Southgate has tried to draw a veil over the quartet of Nations League fixtures in June, which brought draws with Germany and Italy and two defeats by Hungary. And surely the same goes for the Italy loss in September, when he was booed by the travelling England fans.
The final Nations League tie against Germany in September was better – the 3-3 draw at Wembley. England had rallied from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 before a late sucker punch.
“There were 40 minutes of apprehension [in that game],” Southgate said. “I understood that, given the noise that was around the group. The players learned a lot from that. They can’t affect that but they’ve got to make sure they block that out. They know it has changed now. There is the excitement about a tournament and we want that intent and mindset that we saw in the last half an hour at Wembley. That has to be the start point for us.
“It is also my responsibility to remind the players that actually there is a lot they’ve done well and coming into this tournament they shouldn’t be focusing on the recent past.”
Southgate did not want to become embroiled in a discussion over his use of a back three or back four, although he knows that he will be judged more harshly if he plays the former against Iran and does not win. What he wants to find is the best way to apply pressure all over the pitch against a specific opponent, whether that is with a three, a four or even an in-game blend of the two.
Patience stands to be vital. In 100 games under Queiroz, Iran have conceded two or more goals on only 15 occasions and have never come from behind to win. An attritional battle looms and England would do well to remember that it is often the case at this level.
“I played in a team [England] at Euro 96,” Southgate said. “Everybody will remember the Holland game but there was also a Switzerland game, a Spain game and half a Scotland game. I also remember watching the rerun of [the] 66 [World Cup final]. We were [leading] against [West] Germany, the team passed backwards and the crowd were booing. Plus ça change.” Southgate is determined to chart fresh territory.