Win again. Win better. For England’s footballers, much like England’s travelling fans, a long weekend in Prague presents an opportunity for cork-popping celebration but also for a degree of morning-after introspection.
Victory against the Czech Republic should confirm England’s qualification for the Euro jamboree next year. There is still an element of tension here. The trip to the Sinobo Stadium, a nondescript concrete oval to the south-east of Prague, has always looked the most likely bump on the road to London, Baku, Budapest and the rest.
The Czechs are second in Group A, and highly motivated for what one local journalist described as “a free hit” at England before the shootout with Montenegro in Pilzen on Monday. In a further note of match-day tension, Friday will also be the first of three days of national mourning for Karel Gott – aka the Czech Elvis and the Golden Voice of Prague – a figure of huge national significance whose death will see 300,000 people on the streets of the capital, all the better to mingle peaceably with the travelling bloc.
Still, though, England expects. And with good reason. Gareth Southgate’s fearless, evolving team have come to Prague as a colossus of the European qualifying rounds. Maximum points and 19 goals scored in the current campaign. Eight qualifying wins on the spin in all formats. Undefeated in nine years with 23 wins out of 24. Yeah, we get it.
It is the kind of qualifying record that raises wider questions. Not least what these matches are actually for: victory in the here and now, or a stage in some wider process. It is a question Southgate has to date answered in pragmatic terms. The focus has been on simply winning these matches, with no thought of more nuanced times to come.
And yet the fact remains, England are preparing for a very specific set of challenges. The first knockout round at Euro 2020 is eight months away. England are the fourth-ranked team in the world and a de facto host nation. Southgate will believe correctly his team can reach that stage and set their eyes towards a pair of era-defining matches at Wembley in the fortnight that follows. It will, though, come down to details. And recent history tells us we already know what these details are likely to be.
It is as ever the midfield, a source of balance anxiety through successive England eras. To date England have lost two significant tournament matches under Southgate. Both have been lost in the same way, the midfield progressively overwhelmed by players of greater technical ball-playing quality.
In Moscow in July last year Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic simply took the game away from Jordan Henderson and supporting actors. A year later it was Frenkie de Jong and Gigi Wijnaldum in Guimarães who gradually asserted their greater movement and craft. The same qualities that have allowed that gristly Southgate-issue midfield to press inferior teams out of the game and feed their high-grade forward line are diminished against opponents able to pass and move and play around them.
Southgate knows this of course. The suggestion is he will now deviate from the high-pressure three-man arm-wrestle of England’s last two games. Declan Rice, Henderson and Ross Barkley are fine Premier League midfielders but as a combination they offer similar strengths.
The talk is of a switch to 4-2-3-1 – indistinguishable from a 4-3-3 in many phases of the game – but with the introduction of a free radical in the heart of the team, a player better able to keep the ball under pressure and to find different angles.
At which point enter Mason Mount, whose youthfulness as an international central midfielder is evidence both of his prodigious talent and of the hunger to find those deeper gears.
James Maddison might have played had he not been struck down by illness. Instead it seems likely Mount will start in midfield and play slightly ahead of Rice and Henderson.
It has been England’s folly in the past to see in each fragile playmaking talent a magic-bullet player, there to remedy decades of fudged preparation. This is not the case now. The current generation are fine technical players of operating to a clear plan.
Mount, or the Mount equivalent, is simply another element in the design. He has the talent to make it work, to take the ball on the half-turn where England have often been stodgy, to make goal-scoring runs from midfield; but also a margin to fail a little, to take his time, to bed in slowly.
It is a rare luxury to alter the dynamic of a winning team on the verge of qualification. But then, the sense of constant revolution in Southgate’s squad, that quiet punkishness about the man with the suit and the frown, is one of his great strengths.
In Prague, England have the luxury of taking a risk in the hope of future gains, a final step that could also feel like the start of something else.