Sometimes life comes at you fast and just aren’t how they’re meant to be.
Four years ago Germany rocked up in as defending champions, the likes of Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller still in their prime, and were sent home at the earliest opportunity.
Just last week Argentina arrived in as champions of South America and the smart choice to conquer the world and end ’s long wait for the game’s biggest prize. And then Saudi Arabia happened.
And then there’s England. This was supposed to be a tournament too far for . The understated manager who taught a nation to dream again waking up to the reality that his time might be up. His vibrant young team suddenly moribund and in need of fresh impetus. An enjoyable cycle reaching its natural end.
Well, Iran might not have quite convinced as the 20th best team in the world but, with Monday’s emphatic 6-2 win, England might just have rediscovered their mojo and Southgate may have another lease of life.
If there are any on-field lessons to be learned from this World Cup so far they are to expect the unexpected and that embracing youth is never a bad thing.
Pre-tournament, much was expected of 35-year-old Messi’s last tilt at glory but surrounding him with similarly well-seasoned talent looked a mistake as Argentina laboured to little effect to get back in the game against Saudi Arabia.
Watching Angel di Maria, Nicolas Otamendi and Alejandro Gomez – a trio of 34-year-olds – toil in the heat, the sense was this was a team whose time had passed rather than one in its prime.
The contrast with a day earlier, when Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Mason Mount and later Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden buzzed around Harry Kane with energy, pace, skill and purpose was stark.
Germany, looking to dispel the memories of 2018 got a nasty sense of deja vu against Japan but the one silver lining was the imperious display of Jamal Musiala, at 19 already their attacking fulcrum.
Spain have undegone their own painful transformation but coach Luis Enrique has joined Southgate in placing his faith in youth and the results were on full display in yesterday’s demolition of Costa Rica. Pedri (19) and Gavi (an 18-year-old who made his debut over a year ago) have been handed the keys to the midfield, while 20-year-old forwards Ansu Fati and Nico Williams wait in the wings.
If 2022 is a tournament too soon for Spain’s new generation there will be many more opportunities to come.
Of course, it is easy to turn to youth with that kind of talent on your hands and if Argentina had an 18-year-old Messi or Maradona in their midst no doubt coach Lionel Scaloni would be playing him. But it’s also about mindset.
Italy may have grafted and crafted their way to European Championship glory last year but, increasingly, international football is about taking the game to the opposition, playing with pace and purpose to both win the ball and prosper with it. The energy of youth is ideal and if it comes with outrageous ability and the maturity of Pedri or Bellingham then all the better.
The 2022 World Cup may yet prove to be Southgate’s swansong but it is far from the end of the cycle for the team he has created and for that, England supporters still have a lot for which to thank their selfless manager.
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