If Gareth Southgate didn’t fully understand the pressures of managing England before this international break then he certainly does now.
After last night’s turgid 0-0 draw in Slovenia, from which his team were slightly fortunate to escape with a point, he was asked what he would be doing now that his first two fixtures were over. His reply, “sleep for three days”, suggested that the full extent of the footballing and media demands of the job had taken their toll. Southgate is now halfway through the most demanding of job interviews, a two month, four game trial, with an entire nation watching his every move and a hack pack assessing every decision he makes in forensic detail. He will also be aware, after the Sam Allardyce debacle, that it is not just what he does with his England ‘hat’ on that will be judged, but his every appearance, public or otherwise. There can be no escape. It is no wonder that so many English national team managers fall flat on their faces, faced with high expectations and rarely with the tools at their disposal to achieve them.
Given that I have just described the absurd pressure and micro-analysis that every England manager has to endure, it seems a little hypocritical to indulge in that same forensic assessment of Southgate’s first two games in charge, but that is my job here. I should perhaps preface my comments by saying that having managed only two games and conducted only five training sessions with a group of players most of whom he does not know personally, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions or pass conclusive judgement. England managers are often damned after a single round of games and yet few of us would have accepted the likes of Guardiola, Mourinho or another club manager taking significant criticism a week and/or two games into their jobs. The Manchester United manager explained two months ago that it would take time to overcome the instincts instilled in his players by predecessor Louis Van Gaal, and the Portuguese has the luxury of contact time with his squad almost every day. Southgate’s squad has now dispersed and he will not see them again for a month. His four game period will not tell us much about his coaching prowess and yet that is the timespan he has to demonstrate that he is the man for the job. It is an unenviable task.
However, we have a duty to look at what he has achieved so far, just as his employers will be. Early reviews can only be mixed. His first squad was that of a man who knew he needed performances and experience now, to secure himself the job. The selection of Glen Johnson and Phil Jagielka disappointed many hoping to see the Under-21 coach promote some of his young players. That, however, always seemed unlikely given the stakes. I suspect that that will only come to pass if and when the job is in the bag and the pressure of World Cup qualification eased. Post-match last night Southgate suggested that he had inherited a ‘mess’ and it is rare that an England manager will ever have taken over a more dispirited group.
Southgate’s first big call was to drop Wayne Rooney after a poor performance in the victory over Malta. The player had already put pressure on his international coach by ramming home his case to be a midfielder for club and country, but Southgate has eyes and can see what Mourinho and millions of Manchester United fans can, that his Captain simply doesn’t have the attributes or form to succeed in that role. Rooney is unquestionably a useful, versatile option to have in the squad, particularly given the lack of top-class talent it contains, but on current form does not deserve to start. It was a brave call to drop him, although not as brave as it would have been had Jose Mourinho not already done so weeks ago. The decision to allow the player to attend the pre-Slovenia press conference was a strange one, given the way in which that one decision threatened to dominate the match, but Southgate handled questions well, assuring the assembled press that this was a tactical decision, even when it almost certainly was not. Rooney, on current form, simply isn’t good enough to demand a place in the side.
Despite getting the Rooney decision right, Southgate will now be well aware that a thousand other questions surround his England team after the sub-standard performance in Slovenia. No part of the team, bar the exceptional Joe Hart (without whom defeat would have been a certainty), functioned adequately. It was a sloppy, disjointed and, at times, thoroughly shambolic display. Defensively England were a mess, a product of average full backs, little preparation time and the strange decision to favour the ailing Gary Cahill over Chris Smalling as partner to the supremely talented but still inconsistent John Stones in the centre. Neither Cahill nor Smalling has performed well for their respective clubs this season, but Cahill has struggled desperately for over a year.
In midfield Eric Dier offered little cover for those behind him and almost cost his team a goal when his suicidal first half back-pass resulted in a fine Hart save and a shot off the post. It was little surprise that a functional midfield of he and Jordan Henderson struggled to create or control possession and the tempo of the game. Deli Alli was thus isolated and starved of the ball ahead of them. It is hard to imagine England prospering without a Jack Wilshere type, as opposed to THE Jack Wilshere. Theo Walcott on paper appeared to be a sound choice given his form for Arsenal, but here he was marooned on the wing, with the ineffectual Daniel Sturridge playing as a lone striker, a role in which he has rarely looked comfortable for club or country. On the left flank Southgate favoured Jesse Lingard, a curious choice which has perplexed many Manchester United fans, some of whom struggled to understand his inclusion in the squad at all. Lingard is a disciplined and hard-working wide man, but has no exceptional qualities and can only have been chosen for his defensive diligence. The absence of Marcus Rashford until his late introduction as a substitute was a disappointment. The result of this strange hotch-pitch selection was an unbalanced side which was unable to retain possession or defend as a unit, without creativity and an effective forward target. In isolation, the Slovenia match will have done Southgate no favours in his quest to land the job full time.
But Southgate should not be judged too harshly at this stage. Aside from his lack of contact time and competitive games we must accept that he, as with Allardyce (briefly) and Hodgson before him, is trying to create a coherent unit from a desperately average pool of players, perhaps the worst an England manager has ever had to work with. He works for a nation with too few qualified coaches, where blood and guts still often trump technical excellence and that has a total mental block when the chips are down. Failure is expected, entertainment only dreamed of. The Football Association could appoint Pep Guardiola and the chances are that the relentless struggle would continue. No top class coach in their right mind would take this poisoned chalice. It has become a conduit to career suicide. And thus Gareth Southgate is as good a leader as any, for he has no club managerial career to scupper and has as good a knowledge of the state of the English game as any domestic coach. It wouldn’t surprise if he got the job despite his final two games being as turgid and uninspiring as we have seen this week. We have no Beckham, Scholes, Owen, Shearer, Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand, Neville, Ashley Cole et al. Challenging in international tournaments can no longer be an expectation. With this group of players competence should be Southgate’s goal.