A prepared software of the Fifa machine lately, it’s tempting to write off lots of the issues Arsene Wenger now says. Fresh from suggesting that the groups who made political statements at this World Cup have been cosmically punished by exiting it, that temptation solely grew. But his eye for the recreation itself, the one which so expertly guided Arsenal for thus a few years, stays as shrewd because it ever was.
“I personally think the team with the best wide players will win this tournament,” he had said at a Fifa technical briefing earlier on Sunday. A matter of hours later, England used their world-class width to devastating effect to down Senegal and book their place in the quarter-finals.
It was the third goal of the three here that illustrated it best, Phil Foden finding Bukayo Saka to score, from one wide man to the other, the Arsenal star lifting into the middle of the goal to seal a win that was forged on the fringes.
There is reason to Wenger’s thinking. More than half of all the entries into the final third at this tournament have come down either flank. Goals from open-play crosses are up and up by a large percentage from four years ago. With teams choosing to brace and bolster their middle, take-ons are down a third since Russia too, opponents instead opting to build up and attack from out wide. There is only one way to beat them, as they say, and it is around the back here in Qatar.
Gareth Southgate has been taking note too, his biggest problem at this tournament so far also one of his best as he juggles his embarrassment of riches on the wings.
It was Saka and Raheem Sterling who got the call to start the opener against Iran, both going on to reward their manager with goals, substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish also scoring in a 6-2 win.
After sticking for the dull draw with USA, the Three Lions boss twisted against Wales, instead throwing Rashford and Phil Foden into the fray from the off. They too would repay his faith, Rashford firing in a brace either side of Foden in a 3-0 victory that secured top spot.
It was the wide player missing who would catch the eye first against Senegal, though, Sterling absent as he returned to the UK following an armed break-in at his London home. Saka would go on to be restored to the starting lineup in place of Rashford. It would prove a fine decision.
England’s intent was clear from the start. With Foden returned to the left where he so impresses at Manchester City and Saka on the opposite side where he too is so at home, they would attempt to attack down each flank, the overlapping and underlapping Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw more than willing assistants to the cause.
That they are subtly different only helps England’s ambitions, Foden so good in the small spaces he is so adept at finding, Saka more direct and keen to beat a man to the byline. The balance, so missing against the USA the last time England were in this stadium, felt right here, the two halves of the team much closer linked and tied together with the supreme Jude Bellingham at its heart.
It was through him that the first goal came, Harry Kane dropping deep after being found by Foden on the flank before releasing for Bellingham to charge into space on the left. The cross from the channel could scarcely have been better, the timing of Jordan Henderson’s run matching it before the Liverpool midfielder slid home.
The second would quickly come, Bellingham once more bursting by earlier than discovering Foden as soon as extra ghosting in from his wing at the proper second. His go was excellent, cushioned, Kane taking it in his stride earlier than lashing in.
The third you watched may have happy Southgate the most, although, his two greatest choice requires this recreation combining seamlessly to put it away.
That they have been each withdrawn with a 3rd of this contest nonetheless to go hints at how concerned they could go on to be towards France in the final eight. Central to England’s probabilities of upsetting the defending champions there could possibly be the men least central of all.