This World Cup may end up being influenced more than any before by the bench which, if Gareth Southgate plays his cards right, could play into England’s hands. The combination of the oppressive heat and the availability, for the first time, of five substitutes per team mean it will be a squad tournament rather than an 11-man operation.
If Southgate is characterised as an A* manager for group cohesiveness and individual player relationships, his in-game coaching has been questionable at times. Last year in the qualifier against Poland his decision to sit on his hands and not use any substitutes backfired with the Poles grabbing a late equaliser in Warsaw.
In the Euros final last year Southgate was slow to respond when Italy manager Roberto Mancini switched his system mid-game and took control of the match. And it was his fateful call to bring Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford on at the death specifically to take penalties which backfired as both missed.
This time Southgate has to get his calls right. The potential impact of England’s substitutes was shown in England’s last match before the World Cup when the introduction of Mason Mount and Bukayo Saka in the second half transformed the game.
Southgate got his substitutions spot-on at Wembley that night. More than ever, managers are going to be under the spotlight over when they stick and when they twist in Qatar. The 26-man squads will give them plenty of possibilities.
It is choosing the best fit and the right moment that will be critical. This World Cup’s compressed nature will make it extremely difficult for outfield players to play every minute. With three matches in nine days in the group stages for England there is not too much in the way of recovery time.
While two of those are 10pm kick-offs (7pm UK time), Iran first up is at 4pm and the heat will be a particular factor in this game. After training in the mid-day heat to speed their acclimatisation from the English winter for two days, England pushed back their session yesterday to preserve energy.
But against opponents who are used to the warmth, England are at a climatic disadvantage. Southgate may well have to use all five of his subs. The optimistic hope is that this might happen with a healthy lead in the bag to preserve the likes of the irreplaceable Harry Kane.
But the Iranians have only gone down by more than a one-goal margin once in almost four years. It is more likely to be all hands to the pumps. The bench will have their part to play if England are to get away to the start they want.
England have almost too many options. Mount and Saka have already demonstrated their ability to change the course of a match off the bench for England as has Jack Grealish. While James Maddison is unlikely to feature in the opener with his knee problem he too will come into a complicated interchange equation over the course of the tournament.
Up front Rashford and Callum Wilson are also potential late game-changers. Which one of them might be England’s super-sub at this tournament? Maybe none of the above but instead one from left field – Trent Alexander-Arnold.
You don’t tend to think of full-backs as impact players but Alexander-Arnold has a passing range that could unlock any tiring opposition defence. In a tournament in which the 12th man could be the key man he could yet be Southgate’s secret weapon.