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The Road To Ruthlessness

As the ancient proverb has it, the road to Euro 2022 glory begins with a single Belgian own goal. Maybe two own goals, depending on how you read deflections. It appears that Belgium are incredibly gracious visitors, and always bring gifts.
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The requirements for a pre-tournament friendly are as follows, in this order: no injuries; please no injuries; a good performance that has room to get better; seriously, not a single injury. And assuming nothing flares up today and nobody slept at a funny angle, England ticked all four boxes. They dominated the first half and made chances without taking them, then tweaked things, made changes, and eventually strolled to victory.
The most eye-catching performance came from Leah Williamson, given license to roam into advanced positions and play with Lucy Bronze and Beth Mead. Fran Kirby, recovering from fatigue, played the last half-hour; not a bad impact substitute to have waiting on the bench. And Chloe Kelly, playing her first international since knackering her knee a year ago, looked like she'd never been away.
As far as we can tell, Sarina Wiegman's favourite word is "ruthlessness". This is why she hasn't picked a single player called Ruth, ever, in her entire managerial career [citation incredibly needed]. She called for it in November ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Latvia, and provoked that 20-0 win; she called for it in February ahead of the Arnold Clark Cup final against Germany, and was rewarded with three goals and another victory. And she echoed herself last night.
"I think the first half we played well, we created chances, didn’t score. But we needed some more depth in the game too, more runs behind. I think we did that a little better in the second half. I think when you win 3-0 it is enough. I think when you go into the Euros we need a little more ruthlessness."
You wouldn't call it subtle. This is a team, she says, that makes enough chances to win. Enough to win any given game, and so enough to win the tournament. The question is the taking of those chances. Friday's friendly against the Netherlands, the defending champions, should be a stiffer test of this hardline no-Ruth policy.

England celebrate socring against Belgium

Image credit: Getty Images

Home And Away

There cannot be a more overwhelming time in the football calendar than the day the fixtures get released. Your imagination runs away with itself: a pretty decent opener, a nice home game on Boxing Day, oh hang on, that's a bit of a sticky run, and then the derby? Oh no, we're doomed, we're doomed… Who even wants to be in the Premier League?
This coming season is going to be extra exciting because there's a World Cup in the middle of it. The fixture computer has listened to the FA's request not to put any intra-big six games in the last round before tournament, though it has stuck Chelsea vs. Arsenal and Spurs vs. Liverpool in the weekend before. Letter and not the spirit there, you feel. And who knows what the impact of the tournament will be afterwards. Chelsea play Manchester City on January 2nd. Some players might still be partying. Everybody will still be knackered.
But we can say this. The opening day looks essentially perfect. You don't want any truly big games: instead you want intrigue (Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal), early tests (Manchester United vs. Brighton), a dollop of narrative (Frank Lampard's Everton against formerly Frank Lampard's Chelsea), and at least one newly promoted side to get fed straight into the big Barclays woodchipper. That'll be Fulham against Liverpool. Welcome back to the big time, lads.
That game at Old Trafford looks particularly intriguing. Brighton serve a very useful purpose in the Premier League, as a kind of litmus test for competence and sensibleness. Being such a well-organised side with such a small budget, they can make bigger sides look very silly just by turning up with a plan.
So this game will be the first chance to see whether Erik ten Hag has managed, over the summer, to persuade United's players to buy into his ideas about where they should be standing, running and passing. Or whether Brighton are going to stick another four past the world's most expensive rabble.

Ten Hag thinking about Man Utd and very pleased with agreement

That's, Like, A Whole Continent

This year's World Cup, coming up in Qatar, is going to be the strangest (thanks to the calendar) and also perhaps the most ethically compromised (thanks to more than these brackets can contain). It is also going to be the smallest, geographically speaking: half the size of Switzerland, which hosted in 1954, and playing host to twice as many teams.
No such concerns next time around. The triple bid of Canada, Mexico and the USA have confirmed the cities that will be hosting in 2026, and if you wanted to walk from the most northerly, Vancouver, to the most southerly, Mexico City, Google reckons it would take you about 979 hours to cross the 4,824km.
Don't do that, though. Not even for sweet, sweet content.
Still, with 48 teams to cram into the competition, why shouldn't FIFA try and cover a quarter of the globe. Honestly, the scale of the thing is baffling. It's a long way from Vancouver to Miami. Another long way from New York to Los Angeles. It's even quite a long way, relatively speaking, from San Francisco to the "San Francisco Bay Area" stadium, which is Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, just north of San Jose.
48 teams means 80 games, which is a lot of football to squeeze into a single month. And a lot of travelling for everybody: planes, trains, automobiles. It's a Brazil World Cup, and then another half of a Brazil World Cup on top.
It's going to be incredible, in the very literal sense of the term: it will stretch credulity. It will also stretch the cities themselves. The World Cup lands on its gracious hosts like a visit from some distant emperor, demanding and receiving tax breaks and heavy security, causing urban displacement.
It is a wonderful experience on television and in the stadiums; it can be a grim one from the wrong side of the riot shields. Everything about the World Cup, from the environmental cost to the creaking football calendar, suggests that it needs to be made smaller. It is not being made smaller.

HAT TIP

For a second there, we'd almost forgotten that Paul Pogba had a documentary coming out. Sorry, Paul. We'll try and do better. And just to check, you went with "Pogmentary" as the title, yes? Right, right. Good.
We haven't seen it. We don't get invited to previews. But the Athletic's Oliver Kay has had a look at some of the footage, and it sounds compelling. And a little bit terrifying. Here's a quote from Rafaela Pimenta, lawyer and business associate of Mino Raiola. "Pogba is something we built. It’s a brand. It has emojis, it has Pogmojis, it has cups. He has shows, he has haircuts and we hope to entertain people with that."
The headline is that Pogba complains of being offered "nothing" by Manchester United, having been offered 300,000 somethings a week. But whatever its merits as entertainment or as propaganda - Pogaganda? - this sounds like it's going to be a crucial document for understanding this moment.
This strange intersection of football and celebrity and branding, this place where midfield aceness blurs with superstardom. This place where £300,000 a week can feel like nothing because it's offered in the wrong way or at the wrong time.

RETRO CORNER

It's 28 years to the day since the last north American World Cup, USA '94, kicked off in Chicago. Which means it's 28 years since Diana Ross and all that followed: Maradona, Stoichkov, Baggio, Romario, Jack Charlton and the heat. The terrible heat. Here's an hour of Barry Davies reviewing the tournament for the BBC. Stay hydrated.

COMING UP

Apparently it's USA day today. So why not round it off with some MLS this evening: Seattle Sounders vs. Los Angeles FC, and then LA Galaxy vs. Portland Timbers.
Seriously, stay hydrated. We'll be back on Monday.
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