Gareth Southgate was widely described as courageous for demoting Wayne Rooney to a place on the bench against Slovenia. Yet the bolder move would have been to promote Marcus Rashford to the starting line-up. England have managed four goals in their last five games and the list of opponents has been so moderate – Slovenia, Malta, Iceland and Slovakia (twice) – it cannot be passed off as a mere blip. Rooney’s absence on Tuesday meant Slovenia had more international goals in their starting XI than England. Theo Walcott cannot expect to keep his place after two undistinguished performances and Daniel Sturridge has not always shown he can excel as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 system. Jamie Vardy does not appear to have Southgate’s full backing and Harry Kane’s brilliant form for Tottenham last season culminated in his Euro 2016 becoming a personal ordeal.
Lack of aura
One of the noticeable things about England’s goalless draw in the Stadion Stozice was the number of empty seats. England simply do not have the same aura of old and opposition teams are no longer cowed in their presence. Iceland showed in Euro 2016 that England can quickly lose their nerve when they are struggling to exert superiority over limited opponents and perhaps anticipating fierce criticism, both from the media and their supporters. Other teams are cottoning on and Slovenia’s performance was the latest example of a smaller nation believing they have realistic aspirations of exposing England’s delicate mentality.
Southgate talked recently about England once going into tournaments with at least half-a-dozen club captains in their ranks. Yet the days have gone when England seemed to produce natural leaders who can rally, cajole and lift the team during difficult moments. Jordan Henderson took the captain’s armband against Slovenia but is not a natural fit for the role. Who is? Gary Cahill, John Stones and Eric Dier have all been mentioned for the role but these are not players with the substance of, say, Tony Adams, Stuart Pearce or Bryan Robson. That kind of figure no longer seems to exist in top-level football – and that is not necessarily a good thing from England’s perspective.
Southgate has a philosophy he hopes his players will adopt and which he envisages running through the entire national set-up into the junior selections. He wants the team to be fluent and brave in possession, clever in their movement and ambitious in their attacking play, but he always knew it would be near impossible to have his line-up scintillating as per his wishes after only five training sessions as interim manager. The very fact Rooney has veered from deep-lying midfielder to No10 in two appearances suggests the stand-in manager has had to ally long-term aspirations with short-term pragmatism to glean the four points. But creating an identity in the way the team plays is a priority, with “style” one of the buzzwords of his brief tenure to date.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Sam Allardyce’s stunted tenure was the fact he had made an immediate and favorable impression on his players and instigated some measures which, it seemed, might make the whole England experience more enjoyable. That extended to a more relaxed atmosphere around St George’s Park, which has to become a base the players enjoy visiting, and even something akin to speed-dating sessions within the party to help them bond. Even the postcards sent to the squad involved against Slovakia, while poorly timed given they arrived on the day after he left his position, smacked of a spirit of inclusion. Given how traumatic the summer had proved, with the humiliation endured against Iceland, there remains a need to improve the whole ambience around the squad. Otherwise each minor setback will merely open up old wounds.
Plenty about England’s interim manager has been impressive over the last fortnight. He has dealt with a difficult situation with dignity and tact, spoken
eloquently and intelligently to the world, while winning over his playing squad with his tactical discipline and input behind the scenes. He even had the backbone to leave Rooney out of his side. The FA will have been relieved to see its stand-in ticking all the boxes that would mark him out as a permanent successor to Allardyce. But the reality is the set-up will retain a rather temporary feel until a full-time appointment is made. Perhaps the governing body should just take the plunge and confirm Southgate as its man long-term. After all, do England need a name with more clout? Would it not make sense, with such a young squad, to go with a coach who has worked with so many of its number already? The stability would be welcome.