Modern team, modern approach, modern man. People can get carried away with football, especially during the knockout phase of a World Cup and especially on a night like tonight, when England take on Colombia in the last-16, but manager Gareth Southgate has a way of placing everything in perspective.
He has allowed Manchester City midfielder Fabian Delph to remain by his wife’s side back home in England, as she is due to give birth any day now. Southgate is unsure if Delph will make it back to Moscow in time, but is unconcerned. “He has my full support,” Southgate said. “He’s buying his wife curries to try and aid the speed of process! But it’s a bit of perspective in life. There’s only one day in your life when your children is born. I know my father’s generation would view that differently, but you have to be there for your family. The thought process in some things in life is more important than football. His wife is due to go into labour. This is a big tournament, but family is more important. At times like this, players who are family-orientated should be supported by us. He has been exceptional. We’ve been so fortunate to have a squad whose character and spirit has forged an incredible bond. I can’t speak highly enough of his character around the group, but his focus should be with his family at this time.”
This is all part of the grounding process, the normalisation, the pressure relieving on his young players as it, inevitably, mounts. It is different; refreshing. Times are changing and the England team has had to change, too, after decades of disappointment. Nowadays, every two years it seems as though nobody cares about international football, and then a major tournament comes along and England have to win it. The pressure that did not really exist a few months before the tournament has increased as the draw has opened up.
“You know the level of the game is going up a notch, the level of the opponent is higher, the technical ability of the opponent,” Southgate said. “You get punished more ruthlessly if you allow opportunities so it is the same for us. We think we can cause opposing teams a lot of problems and that won’t change because we are in the knockout phase. We will continue to play in the style we have.
“We are a young side, the least experienced in the tournament, but we have some old fogies as well who can show the leadership. They are really hungry and want to do well for the country, are incredibly proud to wear the shirt. I’m confident we’ll see a really good performance.”
Whether fairly or unfairly, there is no player in the England team who has more scrutiny and pressure placed upon them than Raheem Sterling. Today marks 999 days since Sterling last scored for England, despite 23 goals for Manchester City last season. Sterling is due one – off the shin, or a shoulder, or hitting his heels and bouncing over the goalkeeper.
“I have great belief in him,” Southgate said. “He’s been a really important part of the team. The last five or six games he’s played in, he’s been key to the change of system. His movement and ability to run at teams from deep, his interplay with position, he’s a player we have a lot of belief in. I’ve wondered why there’s been so much focus on his position in the team and not on others. But he’s tough and resilient. He’s a player who will be looking forward to this game.”
Everyone, Southgate believes, is looking forward to it. “Whenever people say ‘I don’t care about international football’ that tends to be during the season and when you come to a big tournament it is not just football fans it is grandad, it is aunt, it is everyone supporting the team.” A very modern team, but with the same old expectations.