When Harry Kane scored against Slovenia last night, it didn’t really matter to anyone but Kane himself. The players, manager and fans might have felt a small bump of joy from it all, but it didn’t make any real difference. Gareth Southgate, particularly, should know that qualifying for the World Cup is the least that people expect of him and his side. The time for him to meet – exceeding is far too optimistic – expectations, won’t be with us until next summer in Russia.
The game will be recorded as a victory, but the performance for much of the match had the whiff of a trudging draw. There were problems across the pitch. Joe Hart failed to stop a simple ball without needing three attempts. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain offered little. The whole side underscored just how little ability they have within themselves to provide meaningful change over the course of the match.
But first, the positive. There are few international teams who have qualified for international tournaments with so little fuss as England. Looking at France, the Netherlands, Argentina and Brazil, we can see that England are not the only countries to struggle to break out of a funk.
However, England are the only country to have failed to break out of that funk for consecutive decades, having failed to look exciting since the 1998 World Cup. And this is the best there is in terms of positives. There is now plenty of time for Southgate to put into action his plan for the World Cup.
Any difficult, complex systems he wants to teach his squad, or positions he wants them to adapt to, he now has the best part of a year to get that message across.
Perhaps this is unfair, and there is another reason for optimism. In Kane, England do have a player who could be considered the world’s best striker, or could soon become that. He said in a recent interview that he does not drink throughout the season, and that since the turn of the year he has used a chef in his home to ensure that every meal he eats is suitable for his recovery and fitness over the course of the season.
That is something that, say, Wayne Rooney, is unlikely to have done, let alone considered. His consistency in front of goal is not just a poacher’s instinct, but the kind of ruthlessness that Alan Shearer displayed even when he had no knees.
Either side of him could be two dangerous players. Marcus Rashford has shown for Manchester United that he has the talent, intelligence and direct approach to provide both goals and assists. He is versatile, and any player who can gain Jose Mourinho’s trust is not afraid of hard work. To his right is Raheem Sterling, who has the chance to learn for a second season from Pep Guardiola. Guardiola is perhaps a better manager than Southgate, so he should be able to give both Sterling and Kyle Walker an effective understanding going into the World Cup.
Those are the positives. All of them. For Southgate and England, there are plenty of concerns. The style of play is so deathly boring, and has been since Sven-Goran Eriksson was in charge, that the fans got more pleasure from chucking paper planes onto the pitch than actually watching what was going on. It is not fair on the current players, but backpasses being jeered represents not just the fans’ ignorance; it also shows the level of frustration with the national side.
While it is should not fall upon Southgate alone to change the atmosphere in the ground, it is now his responsibility with the situation he has been given. Looking at him, he is not going to do that with his personality.
Southgate should be commended for acknowledging many of the England football team’s shortcomings. He has pointed out the false impression many English people and players have of the side. He showed how poorly England have performed compared to their supposed peers and the how poorly they have done at international tournaments. But that’s the easiest part – that is what 90% of us already knew to be true, whether it was said aloud or not.
And while many are aware of the problems, it doesn’t mean that can be solved easily. Wayne Rooney has willingly jumped before permanently pushed, but there is no quality central defender available. Joe Hart is another senior squad member who needs to be urgently replaced instead of indulged until the situation becomes intractable. The team needs to shed its fear and inability to play under only a tiny bit of pressure. These are psychological and technical challenges, that are difficult to resolve with day-to-day coaching contact, let alone a couple of days every other month.
England go to Lithuania, on Sunday, and they can only do so much within that game. What Southgate needs to work out is how he can start to combat and address the fundamental weaknesses in the players, team, FA and country before the World Cup starts. Easy, then.