Is it coming home?

England kick off their World Cup campaign against Iran on Monday desperate to take the final step after twice falling just short of winning the country’s first major trophy in more than half a century. They start their three Group B fixtures established as one of the leading contenders. That lofty status is a stark contrast to six years ago, when Gareth Southgate took charge with England at a low ebb after a series of humiliations on and off the pitch.

Gareth Southgate

A surprise run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals in Russia gave the manager credibility among previously sceptical players and fans. And he followed that impressive achievement by leading England to their first major final for 55 years at last year’s European Championship. But while Southgate has made England a team to be feared again, he has yet to deliver the silverware. The World Cup run four years ago ended in a 2-1 defeat to Croatia after England squandered the lead, while Italy recovered from Luke Shaw’s early goal to beat Southgate’s men on penalties in the Euro final at a shell-shocked Wembley.

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Not only did England lose when the stakes were highest, but in both matches they retreated into their shell with a conservative game-plan that left Southgate open to criticism. Unable to dispel accusations that his cautious approach prevents players from fully expressing themselves, Southgate has conceded there are lessons to learn from England’s failures. However, there were few signs of any tactical growth from the 52-year-old as England laboured through a dismal Nations League campaign prior to the World Cup. Having failed to win any of their past six matches, England arrived in Qatar on their worst run of form since 1993. With tougher matches against the United States and Wales looming in Group B, England cannot afford a slow start against Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium.

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