Tuesday 17 September 2019

Southgate's biggest task will be to banish England's doubts

England manager Gareth Southgate during training at the LFF Stadium in Vilnius. Photo: PA
England manager Gareth Southgate during training at the LFF Stadium in Vilnius. Photo: PA

Jason Burt

A Lithuanian journalist asked Gareth Southgate if he had brought some warm clothes to Vilnius because Roy Hodgson had got it wrong when England played here almost two years ago to the day and found it uncomfortably chilly on the touchline as the mercury plummeted.

Southgate did not quite know how to answer but the England manager did continue his own attempts to lower the temperature. There is, in Southgate's analysis, no room for feverish expectation when it comes to evaluating where his team are at and what can be expected in Russia next summer.

Qualification for the World Cup was sealed at Wembley last Thursday in the drab 1-0 win over Slovenia, when the biggest cheers came after paper aeroplanes were thrown on to the pitch.

England flew into the Lithuanian capital yesterday to fulfil their final qualification tie, with the modest hosts also having nothing of consequence to play for, and Southgate had his own cold blast when asked to assess his team and whether he was in danger of talking them down because there were, nevertheless, some "big" players among them.

"Well, are they big players until they win?" he responded. "We're talking about big players because of transfer fees or because they are playing in the Champions League. But when we are in semi-finals, finals and winning trophies, then we're big players. Until that point, we have it all to prove.

"I am the same as coach, so I don't dissociate myself from that. But we can't consider ourselves big players. Big players are Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer - I could go on. That's what big players are.

"We create a bubble in our country around the Premier League because of the money, because of the profile of it. We have it to prove. No problem. These guys are hungry to prove it."

It is a bubble Southgate is certainly pricking. The players are hungry, hopefully, and their manager has reiterated how much his squad want to get better and want to succeed. Yet it may come as a surprise that he does not regard Harry Kane, one of the most coveted strikers in Europe, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford, two of its most exciting young talents, or even Gary Cahill, who has Premier League and Champions League medals with Chelsea, as "big" players on the international stage.

It is a fine line for Southgate, who should be commended for his honesty, and he is undeniably right in attempting to deflate any hint of an effort to talk England up. But does talking in this fashion also, potentially, lead to an excuses culture? Is there is the risk of a dangerous fatalism?

For Southgate, it is simple. He has a young squad. He has a squad who need to be nurtured but are also still in a fragile state, and it was interesting that, a year into the job, he once more referenced the Iceland debacle from Euro 2016 and how that scar hurt.

"We're picking this up because of Iceland as much as anything, and years of not succeeding to the level the country believes it should," Southgate said. "These lads are going to need support. It's not going to help them if the negativity is as high as it can be. For me, as the coach, no problem. That's my reality from the last 20 years (since his Euro 96 penalty miss). If people want to have a go at me, no problem."

Fabio Capello, when he was England manager, labelled it as "the fear" of wearing the Three Lions shirt. "I think it's probably our biggest challenge," Southgate said. "The world of international sport is a hugely difficult environment. Very tough for young people. Football is the most difficult because the spotlight is the biggest and people expect performance now. I understand that because I am 47 and I have lived through it, but for young kids who are 19 and 20 and 23, it is not so easy to rationalise."

Fair enough. Except, while Southgate talks a sobering game, and even if he is right and England do not have any "big players", the reality is this team do not add up to the sum of their parts. Yet. Club performances are not matched by those for their country.

Whether that is due to poor coaching, selection or performances - "the fear" - it still has to be addressed. Southgate is buying time but the clock is ticking. After today there are four friendlies - Brazil and Germany next month, and then Holland and Italy in the spring - before he finalises not just his squad but his approach to Russia. "We want to come out of this match learning things. We don't want to waste the fixture," Southgate said. So, playing Lithuania does matter. England need to get over themselves. They need to be assertive. Southgate has given them their reality check. England have to start reacting.


Lithuania v England

TV3/UTV, 5.0


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