The countdown is on, folks.
We are now just a little over 14 months away from the start of the Qatar World Cup – a veritable winter wonderland of questionable morals that will take the unprecedented step of combining mulled wine and snowball fights with endemic human rights violations.
Whatever your thoughts on FIFA’s latest unscrupulous venture, however, one thing is all but certain – England will be there.
Last night’s 1-1 draw against Poland was a minor bump in the road, granted, but by no means will it be enough to dissuade the most eager of fans from spending their loved ones’ Christmas present budget on flights to the Middle East, or from brainstorming ways of awkwardly shoehorning Gareth Southgate’s name into popular seasonal hits.
Four points clear of their qualifying group with an unbeaten record and winnable games against Andorra, Hungary, Albania, and everyone’s favourite mountainous microstate enclave, San Marino, still to come, the Three Lions are all but assured of a spot in next year's competition.
But the manner in which they dropped two points in Warsaw on Wednesday has left some questioning the wisdom behind certain aspects of the boss’ game management.
Ordinarily, criticism of Southgate tends to run the risk of veering slightly into the realm of blasphemy. After all, not only has he twice taken the country to the brink of much-fabled major tournament glory, but he’s also a thoroughly lovely bloke to boot – the kind of guy who takes your recycling bin out for you when you forget, or who pops round to drop off some Miracle Gro for your back garden because it was on two-for-one in Wilko and you might as well get some use out of it too.
The problem is, even though he’s just about the most affable man in football, there are times when his use of substitutions – or lack thereof – is a little baffling.
It may seem like a relatively small gripe in the grand scheme of things, but last night was a prime example of just how important the right change at the right time can be when it comes to dragging a team over the finishing line.
Poland’s goal came in the 92nd minute after a period of heightened territorial pressure facilitated by an increasingly lacklustre English press. Southgate’s men fell deeper and deeper into their defensive third as the game edged closer to its conclusion, and the sequence of events that led to Damian Szymański’s headed equaliser had the foreboding inevitability of a car crash in slow motion.
More than once, England failed to clear their lines – Mason Mount swung a boot at a loose ball with all the coordination and conviction of a toddler swinging a sock full of porridge, while Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice were left looking sluggishly gallant as they blocked shots without ever mustering the energy to nip the looming threat in the bud.
Counterfactual hypothesising rarely does any good, but it was hard to watch the calamity unfold without wondering whether a fresh pair of legs in the engine room might have helped to make some kind of meaningful difference.
At one point in the match, Southgate had both Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold warming up on the sidelines, and yet by the final whistle, he had failed to make a single substitution.
Perhaps with a little more zing and impetus, England would have been able to deal with that late rally from the Poles. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been anywhere near their own box in the dying seconds at all.
Again, this is a result that’s significance already looks to be fading, but the finer details do speak to the one notable chink in Southgate’s armour.
Tactically, the 51-year-old has rarely missed a step since taking on the top job. We all groaned in anguish when he started Kieran Trippier at left-back against Croatia earlier this summer, and then we all donned our bibs and tucked into a hearty portion of humble pie when it paid off.
But in those high pressure moments on which the biggest matches can so often hinge, there’s been very little from Southgate to suggest that his instantaneous game management is as strong as his forward planning.
The most glaring example came in the final of Euro 2020, in which he brought on both Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho just moments before it went to penalties. Barely acclimatised to nerve-shattering grandeur of the occasion, physically and mentally, both players would go on to miss their spot kicks.
Just to reiterate, Southgate will lead England into next year’s World Cup, and honestly, he is still the best man for the job by a country mile. But if Wednesday’s stumbling block against Poland proved anything, it’s that he – like his squad of young, vibrant talent – still has plenty of growing left to do.