Pressure and problems mount for Gareth Southgate as England face pre-World Cup test

Published by
Peter Kavinsky

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On Tuesday night, Gareth Southgate called up the England squad for the first real game since the humiliation of Hungary. He didn’t need to say that every minute counts now, because all players know that.

They are fully aware that things must be different from June. The England manager, for his part, would prefer a lot of things to be rather different at the moment.

It’s hard to complain about a trip to Milan in this kind of weather – in the middle of fashion week – but Southgate could really do with 10 days, and perhaps more forgiving encounters. This is what World Cup preparation camps usually look like as managers try to create the right atmosphere. Yet that is what it represents.

“It’s really your pre-World Cup camp,” said Jack Grealish. “We were saying before that before the Euros we had a few good weeks of training, good friendlies, and we are not going to have that this time. But everyone is in the same boat, so it is something we should embrace and look forward to.

Such sentiment alone reflects that these games against Italy and Germany have a strange feeling, as they come at a strange time.

Ultimately they are about the medium term and a last chance to make sure everything goes well for the World Cup, but alongside that Southgate needs some good short term results.

The pressure is mounting, after the unfolding of the summer. The problems are piling up, given how the season has gone. So many key players are out of form or out of their club.

The first XI doesn’t seem obvious, and it’s not because of the variety Southgate has tried to cultivate in his six years on the job.

Granted, you wouldn’t guess any of this from Southgate’s relaxed demeanor in the build-up to the game against Italy.

That’s partly because the manager told the players to draw a line under the June disaster as there were enough caveats to allay deeper concerns.

“The summer was really complicated in terms of players we wanted to see more of and players we couldn’t play in every game and players we thought we had to give starts that we knew would benefit us for this winter or beyond or both,” Southgate says. “Two games behind closed doors, so yeah, a lot of mitigating factors, but internally we looked at everything and felt there were things that we should have done better.”

While the basic fact of the summer was that most players didn’t want to be there after two grueling years with little break, it raised bigger questions about whether Southgate should still be there. It goes beyond Molineux’s chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ as Hungary repeatedly eviscerated England to rack up four goals.

It’s the big question whether this diet is becoming stale, as it can. The very composition of the team would suggest so, despite the thrill offered by the call of Ivan Toney and the role of Jude Bellingham.

(The FA via Getty Images)

This international break will represent the Borussia Dortmund midfielder’s big audition to be England’s starting midfielder for a World Cup. Southgate will give him a chance but also needs it to go well.

The England manager is currently suffering from a lack of options in the area, with James Ward-Prowse and Mason Mount being the only two midfielders to take part in full squad training on Tuesday. Declan Rice, Henderson and Bellingham had their own sessions, but it shows just how much it stems from that area.

Arguably there remains the problem Southgate never fully understood as he even came to cost them against Croatia in 2018 and then Italy at Euro 2020.

One of the reasons he opted for the unpopular three-man back line is to cover the midfield, but the consequence of that is that the reshaping of the squad means there aren’t enough places for England’s range of attacking stars.

It’s almost a contradiction, and certainly the main complication of the Southgate era. The necessary approach to structuring removes the squad’s main asset.

Consider the probable complexion of this team, against Italy.

England’s lack of options in midfield contrasts with their abundance of choice behind, with Southgate choosing six centre-halves for this team. Given his instinct is usually to lock in after bad spells, selection and pressure surely dictate that Southgate will go for three at the back.

It will also go for Harry Maguire, certainly for one of the games, and to send a message as much as anything. The message from Southgate’s pre-match press conference was that he still had faith in his defensive leader, despite his problems at Manchester United. The manager wants to show it which means Maguire is likely to start the first game, which happens to be Italy.

(Getty Images)

There is also confidence that Maguire can remain a resolute figure with England, in the way that has been a problem at United. It’s not just the different mood. It is also the different structure.

An educated view of Maguire is that he is still a good defender when he is allowed to attack the ball constantly and has a sweeping-type centre-half to his side. That wasn’t always the case at Old Trafford, which created those trust issues in the first place. He is exposed in a way that he has not been for England.

If Maguire is in those three, it’s almost certain that Rice and Bellingham will be the two ahead of him, and Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane two of the three ahead of them.

The question is about side roles, and that’s where the biggest questions about the management of Southgate come in. The manager needs a link between midfield and attack, which is why he usually favors Mount’s tactical discipline.

The Chelsea man is a good player, but it’s fair to say he lacks the fantasy of England’s other options, which may make the team look enduring rather than dazzling. This is all the more evident when Southgate opts for a more classic defensive right-back in Trent Alexander-Arnold.

This means there aren’t too many vacancies for flair, which of course sparked one of the major debates of the Southgate era.

It’s now facing all sorts of other criticism, just when a cycle is supposed to be reaching its climax.

It means Southgate faces some big decisions just before the World Cup – but his most interesting comment on Thursday touched on precisely that.

“We had 22 games unbeaten and I think for everyone you think it’s going to continue sometimes and maybe you’re not as ruthless on some decision making I feel like I’ve compromised a or two things.

“I think when you have a tough race it strengthens your resolve and we know very well why these things happened and what needs to happen to correct these things. The advantage of having had difficult times as a manager before is that it is not the first time that I have experienced them. You know what needs to happen in those moments and the level of analysis that needs to happen and what you need to do to get an answer.

“I compromised some decisions and you don’t win if you compromise. It was good for me to sharpen that focus again. I have to be completely ruthless and create an environment for players to excel and be at the level they’ve been at for five or six years.

This is quite a message to send to the players.

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Peter Kavinsky

Peter Kavinsky is the Executive Editor at cablefreetv.org

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