A year is a long time in football — but not when you are the England manager. Gareth Southgate left San Marino pleased with a professional performance at the end of a progressive 12 months but has no time to pause.
England will be in Qatar on this day in 2022 and Southgate knows he needs to make every second count between now and that first fixture in the Gulf.
Here are the issues that will consume his thoughts…
After near misses at the Russia World Cup and Euro 2020, Gareth Southgate is preparing his England team to go for glory at next year’s Qatar tournament and become world champions
Southgate benefited in 2021 from being able to spend huge amounts of time with his players.
The results of frequent camps at St George’s Park are there for all to see as statistically, in terms of wins, goals scored and clean sheets, this has been England’s best year since 1872.
There will be no such opportunities in 2022, though. The first camp in March will see England play two friendlies at Wembley, most likely against European opponents, before the Nations League takes centre stage, with four fixtures in June and two in September.
England players pictured returning from the 10-0 mauling of San Marino, which officially confirmed a spot at the 2022 Qatar World Cup
The Nations League has its critics but Southgate will give it huge emphasis, even though he is aware of obstacles.
The Champions League final, in St Petersburg on May 28, is staged five days before the first Nations League game and Premier League sides being involved in European club football’s showpiece will cause headaches.
Qatar is going to be a tournament like nothing we have seen before, as there is no opportunity for a preparation camp and England do not expect to play any warm-up games immediately before.
They will be on the pitch for just 720 minutes between now and the World Cup.
WILL THE PLAYERS BE SHARP?
Southgate will be anxious to see what condition some key men will be in.
John Stones and Raheem Sterling are guaranteed starters for their country but life is different at Manchester City and 90 minutes under Pep Guardiola are hard to come by.
Similarly, what course will Jadon Sancho take between now and then?
Southgate has overseen a quiet revolution with England by giving opportunities to youth
50 NOT OUT!
Gareth Southgate has handed 50 players their England debuts — the first manager to reach this landmark since Bobby Robson.
The first player Southgate gave a debut to was Jesse Lingard.
It is easy to forget that it is only two years since Sancho was making his first England start to wide acclaim. But he has lost all momentum since joining Manchester United.
Southgate is loyal to his players but, equally, he is not blinkered and will not hesitate to look elsewhere if he believes someone is in better form.
It was significant to hear him name check AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori once again after the pummelling of San Marino. He is rattling his fist on the door.
The youthful zest that enlivened the final 30 minutes in Serravalle — with Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Conor Gallagher all to the fore —gave a glimpse of the future.
If those who have been mainstays suddenly dip, Southgate has options that will not dilute the quality of his squad.
The captain’s form at club level continues to be debated but for England it has been exemplary. Such prowess, though, causes its own anxieties and Southgate will pray that Harry Kane can negotiate the next year without a major injury.
If he keeps going the way he has, there is a possibility of him becoming England’s all-time leading scorer in June during the Nations League. That game will be played behind closed doors due to the disgraceful scenes before the Euro 2020 final last summer — and what a travesty it would be if he were to break the record in an empty Wembley. For all that Tammy Abraham, Ollie Watkins and Dominic Calvert-Lewin are progressing — there is also Mason Greenwood but, for all his natural ability, there are big questions for him to answer at the moment with England — they are not in Kane’s class. He is the main man.
The stage will soon be set in Qatar for the world’s best nations to do battle next December
Jordan Pickford has not let England down but there was an interesting scene at the final whistle in San Marino.
Southgate made a beeline for Aaron Ramsdale and hugged the Arsenal No 1, put his arm over his shoulder and spoke.
‘He said to me, “This isn’t a throwaway game — it’s a World Cup qualifier”. We needed to secure a point to make sure we got to Qatar,’ Ramsdale revealed. ‘He told me that it wasn’t just a chance for me to play and tick it off. What I did, I did well with the save and the corner.
England have competition across all positions in the squad making for a competitive camp
‘It was nice of him to say that to me. He wasn’t reassuring me but he told me it wasn’t just because of the opposition we were playing. I need to continue my form with Arsenal and make sure that I put something in the manager’s mind.’
There will be plenty going around the manager’s mind. England are moving in the right direction and 2021 has gone well. But true success is measured in gold and silver and, to make the final step, Southgate still has issues to address. The countdown for finding solutions has begun.