Gareth Southgate faces a potentially defining task in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against France at Al Bayt Stadium; follow England vs France live on Sky Sports’ digital platforms on Saturday; kick-off 7pm
Saturday 10 December 2022 19:42, UK
Gareth Southgate has called it the "biggest test" England could face at this World Cup. Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville says it's the "game of a lifetime". No doubt about it, Saturday's meeting with France is huge. Especially for the manager.
His England side have thrilled on their way to the last eight. Twelve goals scored - and by eight different scorers. But now it gets serious. The outcome at Al Bayt Stadium might well define their tournament. It might even define Southgate's tenure.
His decisions, although likely already made - his assistant Steve Holland revealed this week that their plan to stop Kylian Mbappe has been two years in the making - have been debated endlessly.
Will he use a back four or a back five? Which of his wide players will be chosen to support Harry Kane? Will he break up the three-man midfield that powered England past Wales and Senegal?
There is much to consider, but if anyone has earned the right to be trusted with the responsibility, it is Southgate. This, after all, is a manager who has won twice as many knockout games at major tournaments as the previous nine England bosses combined.
It is a statistic which underlines the extent of the progress he has overseen.
At the last World Cup, only a second semi-final appearance since 1966 and England's first since 1990. At last year's Euros, a run to the final - their first at a major tournament in six decades.
Southgate was criticised, on each occasion, for the manner of England's eventual defeats. When it came to facing the truly top teams, in the biggest games, his side fell short, his approach deemed too cautious, his ceiling as a manager said to have been hit.
There have of course been successes over top teams since the first of those major tournaments in Russia four years ago. Spain, Belgium and Croatia have all been beaten, the latter twice. Germany were dispatched in the last 16 of last year's Euros.
But never have Southgate's England overcome a team quite like reigning world champions France, a side containing a player with an increasingly strong claim to be considered the best in the world.
It is an altogether different challenge from what they have faced up until now at this tournament, but Southgate, under huge pressure from supporters before it began, is now buoyed by the success of the decisions which have taken England this far.
There has been vindication at nearly every turn.
Harry Maguire's selection was hugely divisive but few are questioning his place in the side now. He has helped England keep three consecutive clean sheets, excelling alongside John Stones and showing his unrivalled threat from set-piece situations too.
At the other end of the pitch, the rotation of England's attackers has worked perfectly, with Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and even Jack Grealish, yet to start a game at this tournament, all delivering when called upon.
Ever the pragmatist, he has shown a willingness to adapt as well.
Southgate favourite Mason Mount started the first two games but it soon became clear something different was required and the manager responded, Jordan Henderson helping to unleash Jude Bellingham and excelling in his own right too.
"Credit to Gareth," said Sky Sports Roy Keane on ITV after the Senegal game. "He gets a lot of these decisions right, for all the criticism he gets." Neville added: "He's making qualifying for the latter stages of tournaments look really easy."
The reality, of course, is that it is anything but.
Germany, Spain and Belgium can testify to that.
Southgate, though, has shown he knows how to navigate tournament football. He is unbeaten in knockout games in 90 minutes, winning six out of eight overall. England look stronger now, and even more together, than at any other point in his tenure.
Consider the contrast between Sunday's cruise to victory over Senegal with the nervy penalty shootout win over Colombia at the same stage of the last World Cup. England had to show steel in the opening half hour of Sunday's game, but their efficiency in killing it bodes well for what lies ahead.
France have of course demonstrated the same qualities. Crucially, they have also shown they can apply them when it matters most.
But it is worth noting, too, that while Southgate has spoken of their "incredible depth of talent at every position", and while Mbappe looks borderline unplayable at times, they are also beset by injuries to their first-choice team.
N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are long-term absentees; Lucas Hernandez, Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku and Karim Benzema were all ruled out in the build-up to the tournament.
For all Mbappe's brilliance, then, not to mention the effectiveness of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, who work so well with him, this is arguably a good time to face France.
Will Southgate capitalise? That remains to be seen.
But he has certainly earned the right to be trusted.
Follow England vs France live on Sky Sports' digital platforms on Saturday; kick-off 7pm.