I know what it’s like to play in a World Cup last-16 match in an England squad under Gareth Southgate, and I guarantee that preparations for the Senegal fixture today will have been meticulous.
Spirits will be high, the players will be well-informed about the opposition and how to test them, and the prevailing sense in the dressing room before kick-off will be calm with a hint of necessary nerves.
Four years ago at Russia 2018, our last-16 game was against Colombia and it ended in a 1-1 draw and we went through by winning the shootout.
I know what it’s like to play in a World Cup match in an England squad under Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate (L) is meticulous in the way he prepares his teams for big games
I’m sure that by the time England arrive at Al Bayt Stadium to face Aliou Cisse’s AFCON champions, the mood will be relaxed and Gareth’s pre-match message will be short and sweet. He knows his players are aware they need to deliver and he’s not going to waste words stating the obvious. If it’s like 2018, he’ll say you’re ready, and good enough. Go out and show it, and enjoy it.
He’ll be able to say that because for pretty much every waking minute since the final whistle blew on the Wales game, Gareth and his staff will have been preparing for the next one.
You work on the tactical plan on the training pitch every day, and on set plays, which were especially vital for us in 2018. And then the analysis of the opposition, and specific instructions for the starting XI come the day before the game in a full squad meeting.
Everyone gathers in a big room, with Gareth’s computer linked to a giant screen and he goes through the plan: what to expect from the opposition, how we need to play to win. And then simple but specific instructions for various scenarios. Watch out for player X because he likes to do this and that. Centre-halves be aware of this. Midfielders, this is where spaces are most likely to open up. Here’s how they set up at corners. And so on.
Southgate will work on England’s tactical plan for the next game in the week leading up to it
The starting players will receive specific instructions from the coach the day before the game
Ten of Cisse’s squad play their club football in England, including six in the Premier League, so there will be some familiarity with that group, anyway.
The ‘game plan’ meeting — also the point where the starting XI is confirmed — might last 30 minutes or so, and will be packed with simple, practical information and instructions.
The players will have a pretty good idea before this who is going to start; work done in training will have provided solid pointers. But until it’s confirmed, you never know for sure. Gareth might have told certain players beforehand they’re in or out, and why, because he’s such a good man-manager.
I’ve worked under quite a few different managers and I respond best to a boss who wants to know you as a person and not just a player. I want a manager who knows about your family, your ups and downs, and who communicates every day and who you can have a joke with, too. Gareth cares about all of that, and he is a good communicator.
In the hour before kick-off, dressing room preparation and rituals will vary from player to player.
Senegal will be looking to upset the odds and book their place in the quarter-finals
Some will be vibing to the collective playlist and some might have their own tunes in the headphones. I just listen to some music and enjoy a little dance.
When it’s time to go to the tunnel and wait for the walk to the pitch, excitement starts to build and the nerves kick in, in a good way, like fuel for what’s to come.
England sealed the slot against Senegal by winning Group B and I saw nothing but positives from the final group match, the 3-0 win over Wales, despite the stodgy first half. It was a good performance in the end and sometimes it just takes a while to hit a groove.
Southgate is the type of boss who wants to know you as a person and not just a player
That first half to my eyes was two rivals eyeing each other up. Wales were wary and desperate not to concede and hopefully to win, but England didn’t want to be gung-ho.
Half-time tweaks, not least to the position that Phil Foden took up, gave England most of the meaningful possession. That wonderful finish for the first goal from Marcus Rashford was like putting on the boosters and they were off: Foden purring, effective team-pressing higher up the pitch, Harry Kane assisting, Marcus scoring again and another clean sheet.
There’s a fascinating blend of countries in the last 16, not least after some shock exits for Germany, Belgium and Uruguay. I don’t doubt England have the talent to thrive at this World Cup, and working within Gareth’s framework of instructions, they have the technical excellence and intelligence to make it work on the pitch. However, they need to adapt to what’s thrown at them.
I don’t doubt that England will be able to thrive through the guidance of Southgate out in Qatar
RASHFORD’S SUCCESS SHOULDN’T BE A SHOCK
I’m pleased but not surprised that Marcus Rashford is having a storming tournament.
This is some turnaround from what looked a potential low point after missing his penalty in the final of Euro 2020 last summer — then having to endure disgusting racial abuse on social media.
Marcus is a brilliant individual, and I’ve watched him grow up into a player and a person who always wants to contribute, on and off the pitch. I was 12 or 13 and making my way in Manchester United’s youth academy when Marcus first arrived aged seven.
Rashford is a brilliant individual – both on and off the pitch – and deserves his current success
And I was in my 20s when he made his first-team United debut as a teenager, and then he was playing for England within a few months after that!
For England he has been a trailblazer. Roy Hodgson had said it was unlikely Marcus would go to Euro 2016 but he did, becoming the youngest England player ever at a Euros. And before that, he’d made his debut in a friendly against Australia, wearing the No9 shirt and scoring the opener to become the youngest Lion ever to net on his international debut.
If he was tearing it up on the field back then he was still quiet, even timid, at 18 and 19 and it’s amazing to see the man he has become today. His activism on food poverty has rightly been lauded, helping to force change in a government’s policy.
All this makes it all the more baffling that he became so vilified by racist idiots after Euro 2020. It can get to you; I’ve had abuse over the years. But it can also make you stronger. And Marcus is resilient, focused and has come back strong.
Marcus is resilient, focused and has proved that he is able to come back strong
HOW WE PICKED LOVE ISLAND OVER WORLD CUP
You probably won’t be surprised that one of things that World Cup footballers do in their spare time during a World Cup is… watch the World Cup on TV.
That might be because we tend to like football and enjoy it like everyone else does. Or want to watch friends or team-mates as they perform for other countries.
Or tune in because you might end up playing against a certain team in the tournament and want to see how they’re doing.
Most professional players will spend their spare time watching the World Cup this winter
Typically you might watch a game on TV while you’re getting a massage, or in the treatment room, as a distraction. Or just in your room.
That was the case at the last World Cup, certainly in the daytime in Russia. But that World Cup was played in the same weeks that Love Island was on telly.
So most evenings, most of us would gather in a room to watch Love Island instead of the football!