How England can win Qatar 2022: Neil Humphreys
They must take off the handbrake or more heartbreak beckons
Gareth Southgate is the perfectly groomed boyfriend in every sitcom.
Potential in-laws love him. He brings gifts and never takes advantage. He's kindness personified, real marriage material.
And then, his girlfriend runs off with a hairy biker that looks like Giorgio Chiellini.
Southgate has got to be bolder now. He needs to take the handbrake off or heartbreak looms at Qatar 2022.
The England manager has less than 500 days to suppress aspects of his ingrained caution and let the engine rip a little.
His developing squad at Euro 2020 will be a peaking squad at the World Cup and Southgate must adapt accordingly. The Three Lions lost a shoot-out to penalties, but failed to beat Italy beforehand due to a midfield set up not to lose.
Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were England's best outfield performers across the seven games, perhaps out of necessity. With a defensive formation built around a double pivot, how could it be any other way?
Southgate might conceivably argue that the duo are effective stoppers rather than flamboyant ball carriers, but he should have that extra option in Qatar.
Jude Bellingham performs a similar role for Borussia Dortmund, but with a greater attacking impetus. He turned 18 during Euro 2020. The tournament came around too quickly. Qatar could be perfect.
But Bellingham's rise may cause a bit of a dilemma for the defence-first manager. Southgate advocates control over creativity, a policy that has served him well.
In much of the group stages and certainly against Germany, England controlled each contest in a manner rarely associated with the "headless chicken" elements that have dominated in past failures.
On the other hand, consecutive tournaments have suggested that defensive control only contains elite opponents. It rarely beats them.
Bellingham's inclusion may change that, allowing England's midfield to link faster and more often and add another attack-minded footballer.
But Southgate has mostly stuck with his double pivot in midfield, which surprised even his rivals.
Italy's victorious coach, Roberto Mancini, inadvertently undermined Southgate with a compliment. He praised the depth and quality of the English bench - a bench rarely utilised.
Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho didn't reach 100 minutes each on the pitch, which was not a huge surprise, but other stats were more jarring.
Phil Foden's complete game was expected to dominate. A quick, inventive attacker with no discernable weaknesses had the range to play anywhere - a new, sensitive Paul Gascoigne for a new, sensitive age.
He managed only 159 minutes (though he was injured for the final).
Jack Grealish, the poster boy for irreverent football and all things spontaneous, had a mercurial tournament. But wasn't that to be expected?
Creators are gamblers. Bigger risks promise bigger rewards, a mindset that hasn't taken hold within the England camp. Grealish was given 172 minutes, enough time for the odd flashy cameo. No time to rule a tournament.
Southgate is understandably fixated on balance. After all, the so-called Golden Generation were a collection of superstars stumbling from one unbalanced squad to another. The Three Lions are diligent now. But they do not quite dazzle.
Clearly, they have players who can change that.
With three wins in three World Cup qualifying games, there's the hope that the England manager will secure a safe passage to Qatar early enough to experiment.
A weary Harry Kane could use a little help from Mason Greenwood. Once the 19-year-old overcomes those niggling injuries, he'll have an 18-month runway to soar into the World Cup.
Greenwood boasts the speed to accommodate Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Sancho or Grealish around him. And Kane could use a breather.
But there's a warning for all of them. He's called Trent Alexander-Arnold.
England's finest passer barely made Southgate's squad, and then an unfortunate injury spared the manager an interminable debate over the right-back.
Alexander-Arnold's peerless knack of surging forward and finding a teammate's laces, on the run, effortlessly, is offset by an occasional error at the back. Southgate remains focused on the latter.
It's not a bad habit to have. It gets England to the final stages of tournaments.
But Alexander-Arnold, like Sancho, Grealish, Foden and Greenwood, might boast that little something extra to win them.
Southgate knows he's blessed with a young, vibrant generation of attacking footballers capable of lifting the World Cup.
So, he really needs to start picking them.