The first year as England manager is easy. Play in-form players in a formation they’re familiar with and you’ll probably qualify for a major tournament. With an obliging draw and a little luck you might even stumble into the latter rounds. But after tasting some success, recreating the recipe becomes a little harder.
On a journey like England’s in the summer of 2018, bonds are formed. Now you have a group of players with shared experience. The pandemonium of Kane’s late winner. Ransacking Panama. That Pickford save, That Dier penalty. John Stones’ face after that Dier penalty. Dele’s header, Trippier’s free-kick. Extra-time. Heartbreak. A tearful Gareth Southgate serenaded to the melody of Atomic Kitten. Each moment adds to a sense of togetherness, of bullet-proof unity, a powerful potion that can’t be bottled.
Then comes a tough choice. At one extreme is the decision to stick with the same core group, create a club-like atmosphere built on familiarity and shared history, and back those players through thick and thin. At the other is the decision to be ruthless, to name a teamsheet by the formbook, picked by an algorithm, the product of robotic meritocracy. Of course the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Relationships, loyalty and trust are all important in coaching, but ultimately it is good players that make good football teams, and Southgate is discovering those two ends of the scale are not easy to balance.
Few would argue that Jordan Pickford was the best English goalkeeper in the Premier League last season as Nick Pope, Dean Henderson and Aaron Ramsdale all outperformed England’s No1, and that trend has continued this term. In defeat to Denmark Pickford made another mistake, rushing from his goal and making a nuisance of himself like any good defender only for his cajoling to noticeably fluster Kyle Walker, whose concession of a penalty in the same sequence was not coincidental. So at what point does Southgate make a change? When does the credit of a competent World Cup and a shootout save finally run out?
Goalkeeper is the most important position on the pitch and perhaps there is understandable reluctance to make a change, but recent history has shown just how beneficial it can be to raise standards. Ederson and Alisson lifted Manchester City and Liverpool to new heights when they arrived and, while England do not have a keeper of their gifts, there is surely significant upside to be found in promoting Pope to the top of the pecking order.
And it’s not just Pickford at risk. As Harry Maguire stomped off the pitch muttering “I got the ball” to himself following his red card, the distinct impression was of a man who needed a break, some time out of the spotlight. A Mediterranean holiday, perhaps. Maguire’s centre-back partners Walker and Dier remain mainstays too but seemingly out of muscle memory more than Premier League form. The selection of Trippier out of his comfort zone at left wingback over the past two international breaks suggests a manager not ready to step out of his own safe space.
All of this is not to say that Southgate is necessarily getting it wrong. Failing to foster unity has long been one of the sticks to beat England teams, most notably Fabio Capello’s bored boys of Baden-Baden. The image painted is of a collection of stars who sat apart in their club cliques pushing food around their plate without access to simple pleasures like butter or ketchup, denied time with friends or family, and who ultimately underperformed at the 2006 World Cup. Southgate’s England has an entirely different feel and he is understandably reluctant to release that intangible positive energy and identity. Successful international teams always build a persona, like the magical aura of Spain in 2010, the defiance of Greece in 2004, the ruthlessness of Germany in 1996, or the sheer joy of Brazil in 1970.
The question now is whether he is prepared to take risks, especially when the majority of international football happens in a relatively safe space for experimentation. In the documentary The Test which follows the Australian cricket team, head coach Justin Langer observes how Test cricket is different to other team sports. Earning a baggy green cap is immensely difficult primarily because there are no opportunities for cameos, no 85th minute substitutions. A Test cricket debut is played in a furnace. In football there are opportunities before the real thing: meaningless friendlies and barely meaningful Nations League games, gimme qualifiers and dead rubbers, myriad ways to test new combinations without fear of the consequences. Yet there are occasions when Southgate has given chances and then pulled back. How was it that after ripping through Liverpool and winning man of the match against Wales, Jack Grealish didn’t earn a minute of competitive action in the two games that followed?
As England lie third in their Nations League group, eight months before Euro 2020, there are still a host of questions that need answering, and many just from this international break. Why did they look better against Denmark with 10 men? Why did they carry more threat playing long to a leaping Dominic Calvert-Lewin than passing their way out from the back? How do you get the best out of Trent Alexander-Arnold, arguably England’s most talented creator, playing in a right wingback position bursting with understudies?
Oddly it felt like defeat to Denmark held more positive learnings than the wins over Wales and Belgium that preceded it. Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings looked like something close to a reliable centre-back partnership, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice were assured, Reece James and Mason Mount both impressed. Here it was the stalwarts of the 2018 World Cup who made crucial errors and the fresh blood which seemed most likely to make amends, but whether they continue to get opportunities remains to be seen. Southgate might need the courage to break the bonds of Russia, or it may ultimately be his downfall.