England are only two games into this World Cup and already some critics are talking about Gareth Southgate’s side being a flaky Jekyll & Hyde team.
In the opener they thrashed Iran, then against the USA on Friday they laboured to a 0-0 draw. 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 mad about such reactions. I’m totally cool with what happened, and most importantly so will Gareth. Let me tell you a few of the reasons that a negative response is wrong-headed in so many ways.
The negative responses to England's 0-0 group stage stalemate with USA are wrong-headed
Gareth Southgate will be delighted to have picked up a clean sheet after conceding to Iran
England are top of Group B today and a win over Wales on Tuesday will see them through as group winners. A draw would likely do the same while even a defeat would probably see them through to the knockout phase. Hardly a disaster.
This is tournament football. Some days you’re on fire and then you’re a damp squib. Friday was a hard game against a young USA team packed with pace and talent, from Gio Reyna to Weston McKennie. England did not concede.
England captain Harry Kane is yet to find the back of the net during the tournament
You probably saw Gareth giving his interview after beating Iran 6-2 and he looked a bit grumpy and said he was annoyed at the way the game had ended. This wasn’t just some psychological ploy to keep a lid on the obvious euphoria many would be feeling. He would have been properly annoyed at conceding two, even in a romping victory.
As a professional, clean sheets are important. They’re a sign you’re working together as a team, as keen to keep goals out as you are to contribute as a group to scoring.
In a league situation, not least the Premier League, conceded goals can end up making the difference to where you finish, or even whether you remain in the division. They matter 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 short memories; it was only in June last year that England ended a second group game at a tournament with a 0-0 draw that led to a backlash. That was against Scotland in the Euros. Of course, England then reached a final that was settled on penalties.
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 on, and the process was never going to be smooth. If you’re a football fan you should know that’s not how football works!
England needed a good start and they delivered it. I was confident before the match and last week name-checked specific players who I expected to thrive — including Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Raz Sterling and Marcus Rashford. And they did.
You need a strong squad to go deep into tournaments and England have one. You need players who can make an impact when they come on, and they did that against Iran. Marcus scored as a sub, as did Jack Grealish after receiving an unselfish pass from fellow substitute Callum Wilson.
Squad depth gives you options for different situations and England will have multiple different situations still to come in Qatar.
I’ve seen people asking why Gareth didn’t make more changes against the USA, not least why he didn’t bring on Phil Foden. All I can say is that there are always explanations and reasons that won’t be apparent from the outside.
Jesse Lingard is providing his England takes as a Sportsmail columnist during the World Cup
Southgate made the bold decision to leave Phil Foden on the bench for the entire match
The likes of Mason Mount were instead preferred in the middle of the park for England
The performance against Iran, which was less than a week ago don’t forget (!), was authentic England, a show of what they can do when in the groove. Bellingham was brilliant in his first World Cup. And he’s still a kid. Harry Kane didn’t score but showed what else he contributes.
The USA brought a different challenge and the match had positives too, not least another really fine performance from Harry Maguire. He has always been reliable for England: steady, experienced and a threat at set pieces. And, on Friday, even dribbling in the USA box! Gareth trusts him.
Maguire is mentally strong and he has showed he can cope with all the brickbats that come with fluctuations in club form and confidence. I was at United with him and I spoke to him about the ups and downs we all face. He can handle it and I expect him to be an important contributor in this event.
Harry Maguire is mentally strong and has handled the pressure of England duty well recently
AL-DAWSARI PROVES HAPPINESS IS KEY
The two biggest shocks in the opening days of this World Cup were Argentina losing against Saudi Arabia and Germany’s defeat by Japan. The winners in those games both came from the Asian Football Federation. Both came from behind to beat teams with huge World Cup pedigree. And both wins were absolutely deserved.
Every team at this tournament, with the possible exception of hosts Qatar, arrived on footballing merit. Assuming a nation might be poor because you happen to know little about them isn’t clever.
Salem Al-Dawsari scored Saudi’s second goal against Argentina, a stunning strike. He’s 31 and plays at Al Hilal in Riyadh. Lots of people will assume that if he’s any good, he’d be playing in Europe. Well he did play on loan at Villarreal and helped them come from behind against Real Madrid in 2018.
He also scored the winner in the 2019 Champions League — the AFC Champions League. Why’s he at Hilal? He’s been there since he started. The club has been his life. They’ve won more trophies than any club in the Asian confederation. He earns 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'S DEMOCRATIC PLAYLIST
There are lots of things about being a professional footballer for which I’m grateful, whether that’s the opportunity to travel, or network with people from the world of business, or meet high-achieving people from other walks of life.
Perhaps the most famous non-footballing figure I’ve got to know is Canadian rapper and actor Drake. But I’d say the single aspect of the game I love most is the vibe in a dressing room, from the music we share to the team spirit.
In the England camp the music is selected democratically. Every player gets to pick two songs for the iPod playlist and then it’s put on shuffle. The range is broad, from hip hop and rap to Coldplay!