As England began to play the ball around against Iran, they felt something different.
“Definitely a click,” John Stones said of the 6-2 win. “Or a desire to put things right. We had come out of a bad period.”
They can now look through to the other side. England scored more goals against Iran than they did in the entire Nations League campaign. The reality, however, was that it was a step up from Gareth Southgate’s general style rather than just the last eight months.
“I guess people wouldn’t expect us to be like that having watched us for a couple of years and the style of football we play,” the manager acknowledged. “Maybe we regressed to the norm.”
The challenge now is to make it the norm, and illustrate it was not partly a product of the disarray that Iran are in; that England have announced their credentials.
If so, and Stones is right, it similarly reframes a match on Friday evening that could put Southgate’s side into the last 16.
Much will of course be made about the USA’s proud World Cup history against England. There was one of the greatest ever upsets in 1950. There was that tone-setting 1-1 in their 2010 group opener.
There is a totally different context, however, if England are in completely different form.
Both of those famous games came amid extreme circumstances, at the least.
In 1950, it was an uncertain step into a new world, as England were playing just the second game of their first World Cup. A USA team dismissed as amateurs took advantage of their acclimatisation to Brazil and their complacency. In 2010, it is now known, Fabio Capello and his staff got England’s preparation completely wrong. It meant the team were not ready for the South African conditions, with that immediately becoming apparent in their laboured draw against the USA. That still doesn’t explain Rob Green’s error, mind.
There are none of those issues in Qatar. The England players feel very serene about their physical condition, with even Harry Kane expected to be totally fine for the USA game. That has left them in a better mental state, too, primed and ready to go.
“There is not a lot that was different on the training ground,” Southgate said. “We know the patterns we want to play. We know the areas we are trying to help the players to get into and the understanding we are trying to create. But of course lots of individuals played very well. We saw a really good version of a number of our players.”
A key to that, according to many close to the squad, is pure “intent”. It was reflected in Stones’s comment about that “desire to put things right”.
England feel mentally sharp.
They are still not defensively sharp, though. The defence conceded two goals to Iran, and Southgate was particularly irritated about that in his post-game debrief. It was the one concern about an otherwise professional performance.
Stones was just as irritated, given it is his responsibility.
“It was annoying,” the centre half said. “I’m frustrated with myself because of how we’ve done in previous tournaments in the past with keeping clean sheets and being solid.
“We’ve gone over the footage already and will again, definitely, tonight, or tomorrow, just to refresh my mind.
“I felt the overriding feeling was that what we did was amazing and those fine details of conceding, those small details that led up to those goals, we just need to brush up on.”
It is also why Stones feels that England can keep such an approach – or even a four-man backline – against superior sides. He was directly asked whether he thinks the side absolutely need a three for protection against a Brazil or a France.
“Personally, no,” Stones answered. “It’s so good that we are versatile and able to go from a four to a five. Our thought process with that is, ‘How are the opposition going to set up? How are they going to attack, have certain movements and styles of play? How are we going to counteract that and beat that?’ If it’s a four or a five – in the Euros we even switched in games and did it so well – whatever system we play, we are comfortable.”
The more complicated issue with this game, however, is that USA are unlikely to sit back. They are going to go for England, especially given this World Cup’s spirit of less successful nations claiming big wins.
Southgate admitted he was someway relieved to avoid the early pitfall that Argentina and Germany did, but that such results also frame this next match at Al Bayt.
“You definitely have more gratitude for navigating the first game cleanly. Japan weren’t a shock to us, we’ve seen them play and they were very close to knocking Belgium out at the last World Cup and their games subsequently have been at a very high level. It didn’t surprise me so much and it’s a reminder we can’t take any game for granted and our humility has to be at a level where we’re preparing for the next two opponents who might be ranked slightly lower than us but are both in different ways really dangerous.
“I think the States will make it more difficult for us, there will be more pressure on our defenders with the ball, our centre backs have been so good with the ball for five years and I know everybody would look at what they bring and think of defending immediately but the reason we’ve played those two for five years is because they’re the best with the ball. They take so much pressure from the opponent and they allow us to build in a different way and have done for that period of time.
“That will be tested more and more. Our defenders and our midfield players especially will be pressed more aggressively. And we’ve got to be able to cope with that. And they’ll be more of a threat in counterattacks as well. I think a higher level of players, lots of players with Premier League experience, so it’s a different type of test. They press differently in terms of the angles of their pressure. And they’re all things we’ve got to adapt to.”
If England do click again, victory shouldn’t be an issue.
The team are in such a serene mood right now that Southgate was even able to joke about the Iran game and expectations.
“I know people might find it hard to believe but that is what we normally aim for!”
The next challenge is to keep it going, and manage something that is actually not normal at a World Cup: an England win over USA.