Waiting up the road for all England managers has been the custard pie of an early tournament exit. No clear judgment on Gareth Southgate is possible until he is observed in some future second-round or quarter-final. For now, though, Wembley’s diehards can at least observe some intelligent thoughts in action.
Southgate will promote youth and Southgate will restore a 34-year-old striker to land his first international goal for four years. ‘Gaffer’ has been replaced by ‘Gareth’ as a form of address. A player-led build-up, already popular with younger age-group St George’s Park staff, has been reinforced by conversations with Eddie Jones, the England rugby coach, who believes there can be no glory unless players take personal responsibility for their performances.
This, be assured, is a big ask in England football camps, where Premier League clubs provide an instant escape for players worn down by international failure. England duty can very quickly become a chore. Southgate’s challenge is to persuade this young and diverse group of players to make an emotional and psychological commitment to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
We have seen this before: the culture change, the new mood, the fresh messages, before the almighty ‘splat!’ in tournaments.
But with a 1-0 defeat against the world champions (Germany) and a 2-0 win over innocuous Lithuania, we can already see what type of set-up Southgate is going to run.
First, the talent. Dele Alli and Adam Lallana have been asked to supply the creative thrust for Southgate’s England. Lallana has magic feet these days, bamboozling opponents with shuffles and drag-backs. Guilty in the past of decorating games without consistently hurting teams, Lallana is now more focused on the damage that needs to come at the end of moves. He was outstanding in Dortmund on Wednesday night and a menace to Lithuania, who adopted the familiar smaller-nation Wembley tactic of pulling the whole team back behind the ball.
Faced by this yellow wall, England slowed to training ground pace and took too many touches in pursuit of openings. Their breakthrough came from Jermain Defoe, who has found his way back to national service via Toronto and Sunderland. If Sunderland have made a hundred bad decisions in the last two years, bringing Defoe back to the Premier League was the best one. True, he is three years older than Wayne Rooney, whose phasing-out has been one of Southgate’s most decisive moves, but it should be said that Defoe has fewer miles on the clock than England’s all-time leading scorer, and is a more devoted athlete.
Alli meanwhile is clearly Southgate’s preferred playmaker, his potentially world-class game-shaper. The faith invested in him by the new coaching team extended to keeping Ross Barkley on the bench for both the Germany and Lithuania fixtures. Either Southgate has reservations about Barkley or was making a declaration about Alli’s importance over the next two tournament cycles.
Whichever: Southgate’s game management deserves a tick. He brought Defoe back in and was rewarded with a goal after 21 minutes - a classic piece of placement, with foot skilfully turned. Vardy, who had started in Dortmund, replaced Defoe after 58 minutes, and scored England’s second, after a sweet assist from Lallana, who is bursting with confidence around the opposition’s penalty box.
But while Defoe’s re-emergence feels like a (welcome) throwback, fresh names have flooded in. The precise worth of many of them remains unknown, but Michael Keane has already established himself as a safe alternative to Gary Cahill and John Stones. Ben Gibson was summoned for this qualifier but not used. Soon, Keane may be ahead of Chris Smalling in the order. At left-back, however, Ryan Bertrand looks several yards behind Danny Rose, England’s best in that position.
Further forward, Jake Livermore, James Ward-Prowse, Nathan Redmond and Jesse Lingard have all been given a taste of the action, without necessarily demonstrating that England had an untapped pool of international talent which Southgate is now exploiting. Calling up young or fringe players is easy. But Southgate knows the hard part is turning them into players capable of thriving in tournaments. Roy Hodgson, remember, was widely acknowledged to have cultivated Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier, Harry Kane and others, but a fat lot of good it did him in Brazil (2014) or against Iceland last summer.
The Tottenham axis remains Southgate’s best hope of developing a winning core: Kane, Alli, Rose, Dier, Kyle Walker. Around that he has eased out Rooney and Theo Walcott. Not all his punts are paying off, though many are. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s passing in the deep midfield position against Lithuania was way below the required standard. Nor did Livermore appear comfortable in the same role, where Jordan Henderson remains a better option.
Equally the 3-4-3 formation used in Germany was a hit, and the players at last appear to understand the Southgate/Jones message about not waiting for coaches to tell them how to do everything. ‘When you have a strong dressing room and good players, they lead it,” Southgate said on Saturday - which mainly means small groups of players doing their own pre-match analysis.
This is the honeymoon phase where players and supporters ride a new approach and see where it takes them. Nowhere, has been the answer, too often, in tournaments. This one deserves a proper try.