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.

Nations League – do we really need it?

NO sooner than the World Cup is over, we will all focus on the next international competition, the UEFA Nations League (UNL).

Designed to create relevance in a crowded fixture list, the UNL is UEFA’s attempt to make national team games more interesting. Little have they admitted it, the real reason may be to cut away at the cannon fodder and introduce more elitism to international football. Elitism that will win broadcasting contracts and sponsorship deals.

For a start, do we really need another competition? People have become tired of internationals, including European qualifiers or World Cup qualifiers, let alone friendly games. The reason the latter have become so tedious is because of the very extensive qualifying programmes for the two main events. Games need to have something meaningful attached to them to make them worthwhile – UEFA’s plan is to try and do just that, but aside from games between the top teams, lower down the pecking order, leagues B, C and D may struggle to win public acclaim.

True, lower league games will introduce the concept of being top of a pile for lesser lights, but for what purpose? Promotion to league C? Surely the likes of Armenia would prefer to be playing someone other than another minnow?  Look at league A, it includes all the leading nations and that’s what a league should be, but what does it ultimately create? European Championship circa 1976 – a four team finals.

There’s no doubt that, with good marketing, the finals of June 2019 will probably be interesting. For one thing, they are likely to be as good as they could possibly be in terms of quality, but you cannot help feeling that this is all art for art’s sake.

The way it stands, UEFA is planning to hold this competition every two years – in other words, to fill in the gaps between World Cup and European Championship. So, in 2019, we have the UNL, in 2020 we see the Euros, in 2021, the UNL, in 2022 the World Cup, and so on and so forth.

If they really want to do something constructive, it might be worth exploring the possibility of aligning qualifying competitions with the UNL to restrict repetitive ties and too many games. Why not use the UNL to determine the composition of the Euros and then the European form book to select the World Cup qualifiers? A similar format could be followed across the confederations.

The danger is, nothing will change and the UNL will become a shoulder-shrug of a competition that gets in the way. Or indeed, the Euros start to become less relevant because of the UNL. Either way, football at all levels must, at some point, come to the conclusion that less is more rather than fill the calendar with more competitions and games, that merely devalue the currency, empty supporters’ wallets and put the golden goose at risk.

But it could get worse before it gets better – there are rumours that FIFA is interested in a competition along the lines of the UEFA Nations League. And of course, there’s always a European Super League to consider…

Photo: PA