Southgate brushes off boo-boys and backs Rooney to succeed
England 2 Malta 0
Gareth Southgate claims his decision to make some of his close friends redundant while he was Middlesbrough manager proves he has the steel to make the tough decisions with England, and this statement will be tested as Wayne Rooney's position comes under renewed scrutiny ahead of tomorrow's World Cup qualifier against Slovenia.
Having navigated an unconvincing and at times insipid 2-0 victory against Group F minnows Malta at Wembley, England fly to Slovenia today facing a stern test of their qualification credentials in Ljubljana.
And with Rooney subjected to boos and jeers from a section of the Wembley crowd at the weekend following an unimpressive performance in midfield, Southgate is now coming under pressure to replace the Manchester United player with Tottenham's Eric Dier in order to inject more fluency to his team.
However, while Southgate defended Rooney's performance against Malta, the 46-year-old insisted that none of the selection dilemmas in front of him can compare to the task of having to tell people they had lost their jobs as a result of Middlesbrough's relegation from the Premier League in 2009.
"Making some really close friends redundant - that's probably as big as you can get," Southgate said, when asked to describe the toughest decision he had made in management.
"I've got to make decisions which are right for the team and whenever you select a team with England, you're going to leave some guys on the bench that are playing every week in the Premier League for their club.
"You have to be prepared to do that. That's part and parcel of the job."
The Rooney dilemma is in danger of becoming a distraction for Southgate during his four-game reign as interim manager.
With Dele Alli - the scorer of England's second goal against Malta - proving a better option than Rooney in the No.10 role, Dier's emergence as one of the positives of the disastrous Euro 2016 campaign threatens to squeeze Rooney out of the picture in the deeper position he occupied on Saturday.
Against Slovenia, Southgate is expected to select Dier alongside Rooney, with Theo Walcott likely to be dropped following his latest fruitless performance against Malta.
But having admitted on ITV prior to the game that it will become a "problem" if players face prolonged time out of the team at club level - Rooney has failed to start United's last three games - Southgate performed a U-turn following the match by insisting the 30-year-old had done enough to retain his place.
"I think at this moment in time that (lack of football at United) is irrelevant," Southgate said. "Part of that is because we've got 30pc of the Premier League eligible for England.
"Of that, some don't want to play; of that, some aren't good enough to play and you've got a captain who is desperate to lead on and off the field and continues to make an outstanding contribution.
"So that was why he was selected. What's happening at Manchester United for this week is not as important. I was very pleased with Wayne's performance. I felt the role he was asked to play, he fulfilled.
"He was asked to dictate the game, play with positional discipline, which we thought was very important. Him and Jordan Henderson as a pair did exactly as we hoped.
"Slovenia is a completely different game. We are likely to be playing against a different tactical system, and away from home. We have got to assess all those things with all of the players to pick the right team.
"I think Wayne commands the respect (of his team-mates). When he makes his observations, he speaks up.
"It's clear the authority that he talks with, but also the insight and his knowledge of the game is of a very high level. Not just of the game, but the dynamics of the group, and things they can learn, things they can improve upon.
"But it's impossible to really feel that unless you are inside it."
Southgate accepts, however, that Dier is a player who merits consideration for selection.
"Eric was definitely a player we wanted to protect (against Malta)," Southgate said.
"He's had hamstring injuries, so playing two games in quick succession was going to be difficult.
"I wrote the team that I thought would start 10 days ago and we ended up five short. So, always with international management you have some lovely ideas about what you'd like to do and where you'd like to go and the realities are often very different.
"The best thing for us is to assess everybody, see who's available and have a look at the Slovenia game and check what we see is what we get and then have a think from there really.
"Whenever we pick a team, we select a team which we feel is right for the game. Given the number of chances we created against Malta, I don't think we were far away.
"From my point of view, especially Jesse Lingard's performance, I was really excited by and pleased about it. That was a real positive."
Having missed a hatful of chances against Malta, with opening goalscorer Daniel Sturridge one of the biggest culprits, England extended their worrying run of dominating games without converting their opportunities.
Over the last four games, England have scored just four times from 87 chances created, but Southgate is happy that the opportunities are at least being carved out.
"We knew with the packed Malta defence we would have to try and break them down. We actually thought they would be a 5-3, but they were a 5-4 so there was even less space," Southgate said.
"We created some really clear chances and their keeper made some good saves.
"I think we have players in the side who will score goals. Hopefully they will come when it's more important than it was on Saturday.
"It's going to take time for our ideas to get through to them and embedded into the players.
"I'm realistic about how quickly that can happen.
"On Saturday, I saw really good evidence of that. At times I think we could have moved the ball more quickly, we might have played with more width as well.
"We could have played right on the touchline, which would have created more space, but I think three coaches in three games speaks for itself."