If anyone enjoyed England’s last two qualifiers, you really have to wonder how boring it would have to be for them to lose interest. Even the staunchest of England optimists struggled to find joy in a last gasp win against Slovenia and a meaningless victory away in Lithuania.Since he took over, Southgate’s England have been tedious. The football often turgid, the midfield packed with ball-winners over creators and goals have been hard to come by all too often. The results have been okay, and Southgate achieved the goal of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.
That aim was the bare minimum, but also the maximum he could achieve results-wise. Yes, it was dire at times, and yes, England’s alarming drop in attendances speaks volumes for the feeling around the national team, but there is no doubting that they achieved something.
Southgate’s England have freedom
Southgate’s appointment was hardly met with raptures of optimism. Rightly so given his track record, yet even that minimal hope seems to have faded.
The former Middlesbrough manager came to the job with little to lose. With the World Cup now England’s next challenge, he arguably has even less to lose. Unlike previous occupants of one of the toughest jobs in the world, Southgate does not risk losing a great reputation, and the rock-bottom expectations give him relative freedom for an England manager taking a team to a major tournament.
The popular opinion of Southgate might be poor, and he made plenty of questionable decisions during qualifying, but his persona provides calm to a young team. Erring towards caution in matches where England should be winning by a clear margin was frustrating, though it is an enviable position for many of the world’s supposedly strongest national teams.
The Netherlands, Argentina, Italy and Croatia could all miss out on the group stages. The argument that ‘it could be worse’ is as tedious as England’s play, especially given the different opponents and circumstances of each team. It does, however, show that the teams – on paper at least – will be weaker than in other World Cups.
No lack of ability
While optimism for the sake of it is tiresome – particularly after England’s latest performances – there are reasons that next summer might not be as disastrous as it seems.
First of all, England are loaded with young players who could improve immeasurably in the next 9 months. Of course, that is an unquantifiable hope at this stage, but their spine has talent, and players who will competing at the top of the Premier League and in the Champions League throughout the season.
Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford provide two excellent goalkeeping options for Southgate. The centre of defence might be uncertain, but Southgate has a plethora of choices there, too, just as he does at full-back. An attacking quartet of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Harry Kane is threatening. In Kane, England have perhaps the best centre forward in the world, and the trio behind him are three of the most promising attacking players in the sport at the moment.
Okay, now we are forced to look at the centre of midfield. For those already feeling pessimistic, I would suggest not thinking about it too much. The upside from these two matches, though, was the performance of Harry Winks and that Adam Lallana will return for next summer’s Russian rollercoaster.
You win nothing with fun
So, while performances were pragmatic and sleep-inducing, England do have a squad with talent, and a fair bit of depth. The difficulty in breaking teams down is a concern, though England could flourish when able to play on the counter against opposition who are more willing to retain the ball.
Should Southgate navigate his team out of the group stage, the current pessimism will quickly wane. England are set up for knockout football, with a team of players who are expected to improve before they board their luxurious jet for Russia next summer.
Winning the competition might be a step too far, but whether they thrashed Lithuania and Slovenia or not was never going to make any difference to their World Cup winning credentials. England are understandable outsiders, though it is worth remembering that success and inspiring football are not always linked.
Whether you see qualifying for the World Cup as an achievement or not, passing judgement on Southgate’s tenure is irrelevant at this point. This England team, Southgate and individual players will be ultimately judged on their results next summer. Make it to the semi-finals and the tedium of this qualification will be forgotten, and a jaunt into the latter rounds is not as far-fetched as it may appear after squeaking past two inferior teams.