On Tuesday night, Gareth Southgate called the England squad to their first proper meeting since Hungary’s humiliation. He didn’t need to say that every minute counts from now on, because every player knows that.
They are fully aware that things need to be different from June. The England manager, for his part, would prefer that many things were very different now.
It’s hard to complain about a trip to Milan in this kind of weather – in the middle of fashion week – but Southgate really could do with 10 days, and maybe more accessories. This is what World Cup preparation fields often look like, as the coaches try to build the right atmosphere. That is, however, what it represents.
“This is really your pre-World Cup camp,” said Jack Grealish. “We were saying that before Eurocup we had a good few weeks of practice, good friendlies, and we’re not going to get that this time. But everyone is in the same boat, so it’s something we need to embrace and look forward to.”
That sentiment alone reflects that these games against Italy and Germany have a strange feeling, as they come at a strange time.
They are ultimately about the medium term and a last chance to make sure everything is right for the World Cup, but along with that Southgate needs good results in the short term.
The pressure is building, after the summer. Problems are increasing given the pace of the season. Many important players are out of shape or out of their clubs.
The first XI doesn’t seem obvious, and that’s not because of the variety Southgate tried to cultivate during his six years in office.
You would certainly not have guessed any of this from Southgate’s relaxed demeanor in the run-up to Italy’s departure.
This is in part because the coach told players to draw a line under the June debacle, as there were enough caveats to allay deeper concerns.
“The summer was really tough in terms of players we wanted to see more of and players we weren’t able to play in every game and players we felt we needed to get started that we knew would benefit this winter or beyond or both,” says Southgate. “Two games behind closed doors, so yes, a lot of mitigating factors, but internally we reviewed everything and felt there were things 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 time off, it raised bigger questions about whether Southgate should still be there. This goes beyond Molineux’s cries of “you don’t know what you’re doing” as Hungary repeatedly eviscerated England to score four goals.
The big question is whether this regime is becoming obsolete, as it can happen. The very composition of the cast would suggest this, despite the frisson offered by the call-up of Ivan Toney and the role of Jude Bellingham.
This international break will represent the Borussia Dortmund midfielder’s big audition to be England’s first-choice midfielder at a World Cup. Southgate will give you your chance, but you also need it to go well.
The England manager is currently suffering from a shortage of options in the area, with James Ward-Prowse and Mason Mount the only two midfielders who took part in full-team training on Tuesday. Declan Rice, Henderson and Bellingham all had their own session, but it shows just how much stems from this area.
It could be argued that it remains the problem that Southgate never fully discovered, as it came to cost them against Croatia in 2018 and then Italy at Euro 2020.
One of the reasons he’s opted for the unpopular three-man defense is to cover midfield, but the consequence of that is that the side’s reshuffle means there aren’t enough places for England’s array of attacking stars.
It’s almost a contradiction in terms, and certainly the main complication of the Southgate era. The necessary approach to the structure strips the squadron of its main strength.
Consider what this team is likely to look like against Italy.
England’s absence of options in midfield contrasts with the abundance of options behind, with Southgate picking six centre-backs for this team. Given his instinct is usually to lock up after bad spells, selection and pressure certainly dictate that Southgate goes three in the back.
It will also go to 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 has faith in his defensive leader despite his problems at Manchester United. The coach wants to show that, which means Maguire is likely to start the first game, which happens to be Italy.
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 different structure.
An informed take on Maguire is that he is still a good defender when allowed to constantly attack the ball, and has a libero-type midfield at his side. That wasn’t always the case at Old Trafford, which created these trust issues in the first place. He’s exposed in a way he wasn’t for England.
If Maguire is in those three, Rice and Bellingham will almost certainly be the two ahead of him, and Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane two of the three ahead of him.
The question is about the roles on the side, and that’s where the biggest questions about managing Southgate come in. The manager needs a link between midfield and attack, which is why he often favors Mount’s tactical discipline.
The Chelsea player is a good player, but it’s fair to say he lacks the fantasy of England’s other options, which can leave the team looking durable rather than dazzling. This is even more evident when Southgate opts for a more classically defensive right-back over Trent Alexander-Arnold.
That means there aren’t a lot of positions available for talent, which obviously sparked one of the main debates of the Southgate era.
He now faces all sorts of criticism, right at the point where a cycle should be reaching its peak.
That means Southgate faces some big decisions just before the World Cup – but his most interesting comment on Thursday addressed just that.
“We were 22 games unbeaten and I think for everyone you kind of think this is going to go on sometimes and maybe you’re not so relentless in certain decision making, I feel like I compromised on one or two things.
“I think when you have a difficult race it hardens your resolve and we are very clear about why these things happened and what needs to happen to fix these things. The advantage of having gone through difficult times as a coach before is that it’s not the first time I’ve experienced this. 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 certain decisions and you don’t win if you compromise. It was good for me to sharpen that focus again. I have to be completely relentless and create an environment for players to excel and be at the level they’ve been at for five or six years.”
It’s quite a message to send to players.