Bryan Robson’s France heroics inspire and fuel England’s forward thinking | WC 2022

ONE little more than 40 years later and Gareth Southgate can still freeze-frame the moment. So can any England fan of his generation. The long throw had been flicked on and it was Bryan Robson, his hero, everyone’s hero, who got his body on the side and let the ball run over him before volleying it down and in.

There were 27 seconds on the clock and England were 1-0 up against France. Robson scored again in the second half, a majestic leap and thunderous header for 2-1 and England managed to win 3-1. Their 1982 World Cup campaign was underway.

Like countless children in England, Southgate modeled himself on Robson. He had the same boots; he wore his shirt in front, tucked in behind; he played in midfield. He even tried to run like him. Southgate ran that day, back from school to catch the France game, and got there just in time for Robson’s iconic opener.

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years, the Guardian has reported on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is brought together on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football website for those who want to delve deeper into the issues off the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

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Southgate grew up a fan of Manchester United, where Robson moved in 1981, so this was completely impossible for the impressionable 11-year-old; his first vivid WC memory. Southgate has vague memories of the 1978 final, having to support Scotland because England had not qualified, ticker tape and all. But 1982 was his first real World Cup, when the love affair began.

Collecting the stickers, he was devastated when England fell short in the second group stage, throwing on half-fit Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking against Spain, but could not unlock the 0-0 draw. They went home without losing a game.

“Bryan was my hero and I remember both of his goals against France,” Southgate said. “It was my first World Cup as I watched England and also the Brazilian team in that tournament – Zico, Éder, Falcão, Sócrates…

“I was a midfielder like Bryan. Not in his class, but I used to record with a few goals. To get to work with him playing with England [Robson was the assistant manager from 1994-96] … I found it very difficult. Same with Steve Coppell [who managed Southgate at Crystal Palace]. They were both my heroes, so yeah, I never really got comfortable with it until later.”

As Southgate and England prepare for their World Cup quarter-final against France on Saturday, in Qatar’s northern outpost of Al Khor, it is strange to think that it will be the first meeting between the nations in this competition since 1982. They have played each other on only one other occasion in the World Cup – the final group stage in 1966 when England won 2-0 en route to the trophy.

Southgate has another France game in mind, somewhat lower profile and less emotional, but of real importance compared to the England trip. It came in June 2017 at the Stade de France – his only managerial clash against Les Bleus – a 3-2 friendly loss in which the gap between the nations was charted in graphic detail.

Gareth Southgate during an England training session in Al Wakrah.
Gareth Southgate is relaxed during an England training session in Al Wakrah. Photo: Molly Darlington/Reuters

An 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé ran riot and so did Ousmane Dembélé. France was faster, stronger, superior in every department. They had Raphaël Varane sent off when he conceded a penalty to make it 2-2, but it felt like France had an extra man afterwards, Dembélés win the least they deserved.

That was then, this is now, and England approach the quarter-finals as a team transformed – not just in personnel – comfortably within itself and its system. Beliefs are high and were boosted by the manner of their 3-0 win against Senegal in the last 16.

Declan Rice was asked if France should fear England rather than the other way around – as it might have been in 2017. “Yes,” the midfielder replied. “I don’t think we get the credit we deserve. If Holland and Argentina win their matches comfortably, they will be called champions.

“With us, it is always picked up. The negative things always come that way. If you look at the last couple of games, it’s been flawless. I think countries should start fearing us now because we are a great team.”

Jude Bellingham, the man of the moment, also captured the mood. “We’re getting to the point now, confidence-wise, where we think we can try to take on anybody. We play with a fearlessness. Especially as young guys, we don’t really care who we’re playing against.”

It’s easy to worry about Mbappé. As England traveled to the Senegal game, Luke Shaw said they were able to watch the last 20 minutes of France’s 3-1 win against Poland. Mbappé scored twice during the period, giving him five for the tournament, a grip on the Golden Boot and a channel into the minds of England’s defenders.

It would be naive to focus purely on Mbappé. France has other threats. And yet his presence, his ability to produce at the crucial moment, is by some distance the most insistent line of questioning for Southgate and his players. How to stop Mbappé?

Kylian Mbappé scores France's third goal against Poland and his fifth of the tournament with a right-footed shot.
Kylian Mbappé scores France’s third goal against Poland and his fifth of the tournament. Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

England have come this far in a 4-3-3 system, the balance of midfield key. Since joining the team, Jordan Henderson has provided some security around Bellingham, allowing the 19-year-old the freedom to push higher, force turnovers, drive the ball. Rice adds his own qualities in front of the defense.

There has long been the feeling that when England face elite-level opposition, Southgate will revert to a back three – with Kieran Trippier at right wing-back and Kyle Walker at right midfield. This would offer a double bolt against Mbappé, who has operated from the left.

As an aside, it was a concern to see how Senegalese winger Ismaïla Sarr beat Walker and got away from him in a first-half incident. Walker, who had to foul him and luckily escaped a yellow card, has played just twice since undergoing groin surgery on October 4.

Southgate knows what everyone at home wants; stick to the back four, try to be confident in midfield. If England are going to lose, better go out and swing. He seemed to suggest he was thinking along those lines, even though there is still plenty of time before the game.

“We want to be positive and we feel we’ve done that so far in this tournament,” Southgate said when asked if he was considering a safer approach. “We have energy in the team, we have depth in the squad. So I don’t think we should drift too far from what we have been. You obviously have to pay attention to the opposition and find out where you can exploit them, but we also have good players coming in.”

Declan Rice

Rice made a positive final point, attacking the criticism that has followed England’s performances in the first half hour of games – and the first innings against the USA and Wales.

“Against the big teams, there’s always been a lot of talk about us using the ball,” Rice said. “In this tournament we have pretty much controlled every game. We’ve had a good amount of possession, we’ve moved it really well.

“The opening stages [of games] has been very jarring because the teams are really trying to stop us from playing. But once we get that goal, they have to change. It opens up and then you really start to see us play. Against France we have seen some weaknesses in them which we can try to exploit. It’s set up to be a great match.”

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