The reality facing England – the Southgate team has passed its best

ENGLAND’s recent results are an indication that change is needed, not necessarily in the management of the team, but in the composition of the squad and reassessment of the team that has served Gareth Southgate well. It is no coincidence that the sudden awareness that deterioration appears to have set in has come not when England are playing flat-track bullies against Europe’s makeweights and pretenders, it is in the UEFA Nations League. Traditionally, England don’t fare too well against Italy and Germany, but if you want evidence of worrying signs, it has to be in the games against Hungary.

The country that gave us Ferenc Puskás, Ferenc Bene and Flórián Albert has a reputation that is far removed from reality, but they beat England 4-0 and 1-0 in the Nations League. Since the Euro 2020 final in 2021, England have played the Magyars four times and the scorelines relect the steady decline of Southgate’s England: W4-0, D1-1, L0-1, L0-4.

There is a theory England’s morale was crushed by their defeat on penalties in the European Championship final against Italy, but they are professionals, they move on. What is becoming more and more obvious is that the Southgate side of 2018 to 2021 peaked in EURO 2020 and the World Cup semi-final and Euro final represented the culmination of its progress and achievements. It wasn’t the start of something, it was the end.

England’s form since that night at Wembley has been inconsistent if you look at it as whole, but if you consider the past season, it is remarkably bad. They have won seven of 14 games since June 2021 and have scored fewer goals (27) than any of the top 10 contenders for the World Cup bar Spain. While Argentina, Brazil and the Netherlands are unbeaten in that 14-game period,  England have lost three times.

Their current run is five games without a win, the worst since the 1992-93 season, although not as bad as the 1980-81 campaign when England went eight games without a victory. But in today’s currency, five games could be enough to get a coach the sack, although it is unlikely Southgate will suffer that indignity. Most England managers resign, either by design or in a loaded pistol in a quiet room scenario. Southgate will surely leave the job after the 2022 World Cup.

Results since the start of 2021-22


England’s renaissance began with Southgate’s appointment and he was fortunate to have some promising talent to call on, notably Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City players. Naturally, the likes of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane carried the hopes of the nation, but neither reached the level of some of their opposite numbers around Europe. And in time, we may look back on Dele Alli as one of the greatest unfulfilled talents in an England shirt. We may look upon this squad as something of a silver generation.

Kane is a great goalscorer, but he’s rarely compared to players like Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappé, while Sterling has moved on from City to Chelsea in order to reassert himself. Ask yourself who are England’s most important players today, for it does look as though the conveyor belt of talent dried up for now? The side that lost to Italy in the Nations League included eight who had featured in the Euro 2020 final. There’s rich potential in the form of Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden, but there’s promise in every under-21 team that often doesn’t develop to fruition. England’s squad suddenly has the look of a group of players that have possibilities but there is no cast-iron guarantee it will go beyond that.

Without the goals of Kane, England are very blunt, as the recent tally has shown. Certainly some of the forwards being touted as England material suggest Southgate has no natural stand-in for the Tottenham talisman should he get injured. There are other concerns, such as the continued use of Manchester United’s Harry Maguire, who hasn’t been the same since his holiday incident. There is not finer header in the stopper sense of the word, but in the modern game, surely an England team needs a more dynamic central defender?

Sadly, the realisation that the England team of 2018-21 is in need of surgery comes with the World Cup just a couple of months away. There is really no time to reshape the team or the squad, so Southgate will have to reinvigorate his players to try and rekindle the spirit of those years. The facts cannot be ignored, though – this England team has limited mileage left and the past 15 months should have been recognised as a period of replenishment after two near misses in major competitions.

Southgate’s era may be drawing to a close, but facts have to be faced

ENGLAND’s performance against Hungary was embarrassing for the faithful that carry the cross of St. George with pride. But a downturn has been coming. Qualifying for the World Cup wasn’t very difficult for England – with the greatest respect to their opponents, Gareth Southgate’s men eased through, winning eight of their 10 games and scoring 39 goals in 10 games and conceding three. Included among their eight wins was a 4-0 thrashing of Hungary in Budapest. They finished six points ahead of second-placed Poland, hinting that after the defeat in the Euro 2020 final in London, England looked to have recovered well from the trauma of losing to Italy on penalties.

After finishing fourth in the 2018 World Cup and then runners-up in a competition in which they were de facto hosts, England might have been justified in feeling a little downcast. But these achievements really were the pinnacle of a team that was more about promise than reality. When it mattered, England didn’t have the gumption to win the key games. The players selected by Southgate had certainly revitalised the idea of the national team as property of the people, but it did not quite have what it takes to win against top opposition. The country keeps urging football to “come home”, but no matter how much lager is thrown in the air, it just doesn’t happen.

A national team doesn’t last for ever, and even though one or two players in the optimal Southgate side have a few years left of their international career, a lack of credible contenders to take over from pivotal figures like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire should be concerning the England set-up. It’s not that these players are about to hang up their international boots, but there seems to be a shortage of real alternatives. Who, for example, is Kane’s stand-in of he is injured? Tammy Abraham springs to mind, but he’s simply not in the same class and at 24, we should know all there is to know about him. Vardy is a veteran and players like Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ollie Watkins are not of the required standard. Marcus Rashford is in danger of losing his way at Manchester United. The fact is, most of the top strikers in the Premier are not English, witness Salah (Egypt), Mané (Senegal), Son (South Korea), Jota (Portugal), Zaha (Ivory Coast) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal).

It’s not just an ageing thing, either. Teams can go stale, and on the evidence of recent weeks, it does look as though this England squad has peaked and needs an overhaul. The timing could not be worse, five months until the World Cup and just two warm-ups to get it right. It’s understandable that some folk should start to panic, but sacking Southgate will not solve the problem. Right now, he needs a break as the international calendar is getting more crowded, more demanding and just serves to further exhaust the players. He may be Captain Serious and Mr. Establishment, but if nothing else, the UEFA Nations League games should demonstrate that England do not have strength-in-depth. If the fans think June 2022 has been poor, what is coming later this year could be even worse.

England may have one finger perched above the “transition” button, at just the wrong time of the cycle. It could have been different if Harry Kane had moved to Manchester City a year ago, but in the past season, we have seen the falling stock of a number of players, perhaps due to the psychological damage inflicted upon them by Euro 2020. Southgate’s record as England manager is still pretty good, a win rate of 62.2%, but it is difficult to compare this to the stats for Sir Alf Ramsey (61.1%) and Fabio Capello (66.7%).

In some respects, the England job is not about innovation, trail-blazing tactics and revolution. It is more about harnessing talent, drawing on the pool available to the manager and making the best of the job without uprooting trees. The Premier League is acknowledged as the top league in the world, therefore there should be enough oven-ready resources to build a decent side. Southgate has done that so far, but the squad that served him so well may need surgery. Has he got the replacements he needs? On the evidence of the UEFA Nations League games, the answer is probably negative.