In a parallel universe – say at Wembley or Molineux – Harry Maguire rumbles forward and keeps on going to the fringes of the penalty area. It is 0-0, half an hour gone and England are labouring.
Maguire does not give the impression that he has the ball entirely under his spell. Or that he knows what he is going to do next. It is chaotically off the cuff. He simply puts his head down and shoots. It zings out for a throw-in on the far side.
Cue the derision? Because that is what Maguire tends to inspire in big crowds back in England. Not here. Not at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Tuesday night in the final World Cup group game against Wales. Within seconds, the England fans behind the other goal have begun to sing Maguire’s song, the one about his alcohol preferences and massive head.
Spool forward to the interval. The game remains goalless, England error-strewn and predictable. Cue the boos? Because that is what tends to happen. England were jeered by the Wembley crowd at half-time in their opening Euro 2020 matches against Croatia and Scotland with the score at 0-0 and everyone remembers the vitriol at Molineux in June during the Nations League game against Hungary. That night, England were 1-0 down at the break. It would get much worse.
At the Ahmad bin Ali, there were no boos when the half-time whistle blew, no spontaneous outpouring of frustration. It seemed to reinforce a couple of developing themes for Gareth Southgate and his squad as they attempt to win the World Cup – next stop Senegal in the last 16 on Sunday night – with trust and patience central to them.
Playing at home can be a blessing and a curse for a national team, especially at a tournament. Remember Brazil at the 2014 World Cup? With 200 million deeply passionate people willing them on, the side were a sea of nerves and anxiety, riding the wave as far as the semi-final before they crashed against Germany.
Southgate has previously said there could be no greater pressure for his players than to have what was effectively a home tournament at the Euros, with all but one of their games at Wembley. The desperation of the supporters for glory can magnify the highs and drive a wild kind of momentum. It can accentuate the lows.
It is different in Qatar, more balanced. The profile of the travelling England fan feels different. Perhaps the alcohol situation is also a factor. No one seems to be fired-up drunk inside the stadiums. There were boos at the end of the 0-0 draw against the USA in the second group game but that was after the full-time whistle. It did not affect the performance. A half-time booing is harsher. It is a prejudgment.
Maguire is feeding off the support. He positively bounded over to the England fans before kick-off against Wales, applauding them and getting plenty back. It is not to say that Maguire is not cheered at home or does not hear his song. Just that the bad stuff can overtake it there on a bad day. Over here, the supporters have embraced Maguire’s cult-hero qualities. His size and physical toughness; the fun of him in full flight. He has had a good tournament so far.
As England eased to a 3-0 win over Wales in the second half, there was the chant to the tune of Jingle Bells about it being fun to see them win away. Christmas ditties during a World Cup? It is an unusual experience in so many ways.
“We had fantastic support in the stadium,” Southgate said. “It reminded me of tournaments I played in where you’ve got that bank of fans and it’s a very special feeling to run out and hear that.”
Wednesday brought a day off for the England players, a time to reflect, and Southgate is happy at how phase one of the assignment has been completed. Nine goals, and they have been shared around; two clean sheets; group winners with seven points. The team spirit is excellent and Southgate’s options run deep, especially for his front line.
Against Wales, he was able to get minutes into Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips – as they work their way back after major operations – and control those of Luke Shaw, Declan Rice and Harry Kane, withdrawing them around the hour mark.
Man-management is everything. Southgate has had to show compassion for Shaw, whose grandmother died before the opening game against Iran after a long time with cancer. “She was a really important part of my childhood – I spent a lot of time with her,” Shaw said. “You could say she is part of my motivation.”
Southgate’s selection decisions have been difficult and they will only get more so. How to strike the right tone with those he omits? It was certainly a big call to leave out Raheem Sterling against Wales. Southgate has always started the Chelsea winger in tournaments – except the dead-rubber final group game against Belgium at the 2018 World Cup.
“Raheem’s had two starts here and he’s played at big clubs where you don’t necessarily start every game,” Southgate said. “The players understand that. Of course they are disappointed not to start but we’ve got an incredible spirit among the group. They take that as well as you can expect. They’ve got to be ready for when their moment comes.”
The memory of England’s first-half performance against Wales remains jarring; exhibit B for why they will not win the World Cup. Exhibit A had come from much of the 90 minutes against the USA. Southgate and some of the players pushed the idea that the largely sterile domination against Wales before the interval had served to wear their opponents out, setting up the second-half knockout blows. Maguire made a more irrefutable point. “If you watch a lot of the games here, they’ve had really tense first halves,” he said.
The England players can feel the excitement building, particularly when they see videos of the celebrations from home. “It’s hard sometimes to stay calm,” Phillips said. “But we have a good group and a good coaching staff who will always keep us grounded – especially Steve Holland.”
That got a laugh. Southgate’s assistant is surely more bad cop than the manager. But for a symbol of England’s quiet assurance, look no further than Southgate’s in-game demeanour. The manager has barely come out of his dugout, preferring to leave the players to it, to empower them.
“I got into a habit during Covid of standing on the touchline because you felt they needed more encouragement without the fans,” Southgate said. “But I’m happier biding my time and taking my moments. We’ve also got the monitor where we can watch everything with a slight delay if things happen when you’ve got to make tactical decisions. I don’t need to be playing every ball with the players. I trust them.”