England are much improved under Southgate, but is that enough?


LONDON — Gareth Southgate was always going to win his 50th game in charge of England. Despite the old cliche that there are no easy games in international football, the reality is always rather different when San Marino are the opponents.

There are 210 teams in the FIFA World Rankings and San Marino are ranked 210th, so the result against the worst team in football was never in doubt for England, ranked fourth. Southgate is not a man who puts statistics before progress, however, so the 50-year-old would much rather have seen his players given a sterner test of their ability with Euro 2020 just three months away and Qatar 2022 beginning to loom on the horizon.

“We did it as well as we could,” Southgate said. “I was really pleased with the way we pressed when we lost the ball. That highlighted the mentality of the team for the full 90 minutes. Of course, it’s an opponent we should beat, but I thought they went about the job really well.”

This Wembley walkover marked the start of England’s qualification road to the World Cup, and Southgate will have learned nothing from his team’s 5-0 victory, secured with goals from James Ward-Prowse, Dominic Calvert-Lewin (2), Raheem Sterling and debutant Ollie Watkins. Sunday’s clash with Albania in Tirana and the home game against Poland on Tuesday are likely to offer England progressively tougher challenges, but this is a nation that repeatedly cruises through qualification against weaker teams, only to be found wanting against the elite nations at major tournaments.

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But after 50 games in charge of his country, Southgate has unquestionably restored the Three Lions’ reputation as national team to be reckoned with.

When he was handed the job in September 2016, initially in a four-game interim capacity following Sam Allardyce’s dismissal after one game in charge, England were still reeling from a disastrous Euro 2016 campaign that ended with the humiliating round-of-16 defeat against Iceland. Confidence had hit rock bottom within the squad and Southgate was charged with not only rebuilding the team, but also dialling down the expectation around a national side that had underperformed more than any other major country since winning the World Cup in 1966.

Yet four and a half years on from taking the job, Southgate can look back on a run to the World Cup semifinals at Russia 2018 and qualification for the final stages of the inaugural UEFA Nations League a year later. He has ended the international careers of Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and numerous others and put his faith in younger players, handing out 40 debuts to players such as Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Mason Mount.

Marcus Rashford, missing against San Marino due to injury, has made more appearances for Southgate (37) than any other player and the Manchester United forward will be a key figure at this summer’s delayed Euro 2020 alongside the likes of Harry Kane and Sterling. That trio all played in the Euro 2016 defeat against Iceland — Kyle Walker and Eric Dier, substitutes against San Marino, also endured that infamous loss in Nice — so Southgate has certainly found a way to make that group of players succeed on the international stage.

But where are England heading under Southgate? Can they navigate the obstacles that have tripped England so often and find a way to win at Euro 2020 or Qatar 2022?

When they face Croatia at Wembley in their Euro 2020 group opener on June 13, England will — injuries permitting — start with Kane, Rashford, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, none of whom started against San Marino. Foden is also building a strong case to be included in Southgate’s best XI.

Pickford’s inconsistent form for Everton this season has placed a question mark over his England position, with Burnley‘s Nick Pope his likely replacement, but Pickford has always been reliable for Southgate so is likely to keep the No. 1 shirt.

At the back, England have relative riches, highlighted by Southgate’s decision to drop Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold in favour of Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James. Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw are both competing for the left-back spot, while the resurgent John Stones is back in the picture at centre-half, enabling Southgate to pair the City defender with United’s Maguire at the Euros.

Southgate is also blessed with attacking talent. Kane has the ability to add a Euro 2020 Golden Boot to the one he won in Russia as the World Cup’s top scorer, while Rashford, Sterling, Calvert-Lewin and Jadon Sancho also possess real attacking threat. By the time Qatar 2022 comes around, Mason Greenwood is likely to emerge as an England regular, so the future is bright from a goal-scoring perspective.

But it is in midfield where Southgate has still to find a solution to England’s age-old problem of a lack of creativity and the ability to control games. Ward-Prowse and Kalvin Phillips anchored midfield against San Marino, but doing that against Spain, France or Germany would be an altogether different challenge. Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Dier have also been deployed in that position, but they lack the flair to make a difference against the top teams, so perhaps Borussia Dortmund‘s dynamic 17-year-old Bellingham is the answer.

England’s World Cup semifinal defeat against Croatia in Moscow was a painful lesson in the importance of keeping the ball, but while Southgate has seen creative talent emerge since 2018, we are still to discover whether he truly trusts them. Foden and Jack Grealish have both made a big impact for England this season, while Mount has also shown the ability to pick holes in opposition defences. The uncapped James Maddison is another who could give England much-needed flair in midfield. Perhaps Southgate regards all four creative midfield options as lacking the necessary experience at this stage — Qatar rather than Euro 2020 may be the breakthrough moment — but without the ability to keep the ball and pass through quality opponents, England will struggle to succeed this summer and at the World Cup.

Yet England are in a better place after Southgate’s 50 games than they were when he started. He has won 30 games, losing 10 and drawing 10, and restored pride in the national team. He has the talent at his disposal to go even further, but despite the progress made, Euro 2020 still seems too soon for this England team unless Southgate is bold enough to back his creative stars in midfield.

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