Concerns linger for Southgate’s England ahead of World Cup
The crisis crept up on Gareth Southgate.
Just 14 months ago, England was playing in a European Championship final — and coming oh-so-close to winning it — backed by fans who rediscovered their connection with the national team.
Fast forward to the last few days when Southgate’s players — without a win in five games or an open-play goal getting on for 500 minutes — were holding private meetings without any coaches present.
Jeered by England supporters in the team’s most recent home game, a scarcely believable 4-0 loss to Hungary in June, Southgate knew he would be facing even more vitriol if Germany, England’s fierce rival, came away from Wembley Stadium with a victory on Monday.
So, how should the wild 3-3 draw in what in sporting terms was an unimportant Nations League group game be viewed?
The Southgate believers will say it showed a team playing for its coach, especially with England 2-0 down after 70 minutes and looking on course to be heading into the World Cup with another morale-sapping defeat.
The growing number of Southgate’s critics, however, will argue the chaotic 12-minute period — from the 71st to the 83rd — when England scored three goals from three shots to move into a 3-2 lead simply papered over the cracks.
The truth might be somewhere in between.
For now, the storm around Southgate and his players has relented, even if another might be just around the corner in Qatar.
“You can try and avoid pressure but it’s coming,” Southgate said. “Maybe it’s the third group game, maybe it’s a quarterfinal . . . whatever it might be, it’s coming.
“So, better that we feel it and we learn how to deal with it. We talked about how we needed to react if Germany scored and the players reacted in the right way.”
Indeed, things had gotten so bad for England that Southgate said, perhaps tongue in cheek, he had almost forgotten what it felt like to see his team score a goal.
So when Luke Shaw scored to make it 2-1 with his first goal for club or country since that Euro 2020 final, in doing so ending England’s 565-minute drought without a goal from open play, Southgate’s team was energized.
There followed a curler into the top corner from Mason Mount and a clinically dispatched penalty from Harry Kane and, suddenly, England was awash with belief, looking much more at home as a front-foot team than one sitting back and relying on its creaking defense.
And, despite that recent lack of goals, it is the defense which is Southgate’s major worry heading to Qatar.
On no one will the scrutiny be fiercer than Harry Maguire, at fault for two of the goals against Germany and seemingly a player bereft of confidence after being dropped by his club, Manchester United.
For the moment, Maguire still has the backing of his national coach but the next few weeks at United seem key to his chances of still being in the lineup for England’s World Cup opener against Iran on Nov. 21.
“In these moments, we’ve got to back our best and our most experienced players,” Southgate said, “unless we’re in a situation where, you know, it’s almost untenable and impossible to pick them.”
A shortage of other top center backs may save Maguire, especially with John Stones limping off with a hamstring injury against Germany.
Similarly, at left back or left wing back, Luke Shaw continues to be first choice despite also dropping out of United’s team in recent weeks. Ben Chilwell, a potential replacement, doesn’t appear fully sharp after a long-term injury and didn’t play a minute in this international break.
With the World Cup looming, the big loser over the last few days might have been Trent Alexander-Arnold who, to many, has redefined the role of a right back with his playmaking performances for Liverpool in recent years. With Alexander-Arnold’s defensive ability increasingly questioned, though, Southgate clearly has his doubts and didn’t even include him in the matchday squad of 23 against Germany.
Alexander-Arnold, somehow, looks to be the fourth-choice right back for England and might not make the World Cup squad.
On the other hand, central midfielder Jude Bellingham maybe secured a starting spot against Iran, injury permitting, with a strong display against Germany that improved as the match went.
At 19, Bellingham — a regular starter for Borussia Dortmund — has a long future ahead of him with England.
The same maybe cannot be said of Maguire, and perhaps even Southgate if England doesn’t build on those wild 13 minutes against Germany when the team gets to Qatar.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80