Gareth Southgate still has two big questions to answer if he wants England job
Gareth Southgate has a defining week ahead of him which could end with him being named England manager on a permanent basis, writes Richard Jolly.
Under other circumstances, Gareth Southgate may have been found this week alongside Tim Sherwood at 14/1 in the betting to become the next QPR manager. He would be somewhere in the bracket of ex-England internationals who were essentially unproven in the dugout. He would probably lose out to a manager who is tried and tested in the Championship, such as Ian Holloway, but would probably rank above Alan Curbishley, who has been 25/1 for so many jobs he is probably 25/1 to become the 46th president of the United States.
Instead, Southgate seems a shoo-in to be appointed England manager. Such is the scale of the FA’s predicament after Sam Allardyce was hastily hired and fired, with a top flight that contains a mere four homegrown managers, few other plausible candidates and little seeming appetite to go foreign again.
It is tempting to say that, propelled into the position as favourite by default as much as anything else, Southgate has nevertheless ticked so many boxes he only requires two things against Scotland and Spain in the next few days: results and performances.
Even the former may not be necessary. England have a capacity to land in such undistinguished qualifying pools that minor setbacks, such as October’s draw in Slovenia, have the potential to prove irrelevant. Another draw against Scotland would represent two more points dropped but, as they probably only need 22 points from a possible 30 to win the group, is not necessarily a terminal blow to his hopes, or theirs.
Beating Spain would be timely, if not necessarily auspicious. It is less than eight months since Roy Hodgson’s side defeated Germany, under a year since they beat France. Fabio Capello’s team overcame Spain when they were reigning world champions. Friendlies can produce such outcomes. The acid test for England managers, which they invariably fail, is whether they can beat the major footballing nations at tournaments. The FA will have to select Allardyce’s successor before then.
England’s performance level against both Malta and Slovenia was unimpressive. They are not a team that has recovered cohesion, conviction and confidence after the trauma of Euro 2016. Their attacking efforts since then – three goals in three games – point to a lack of fluency. Rediscovering it would help suggest Southgate has the coaching prowess to make a team the sum of their disparate parts, if not greater.
Southgate is yet to pass the hard tests. He has excelled in the easier examinations. He has spoken with intelligence and eloquence, offering hints of humour – witness his anecdotes about Paul Gascoigne this week – while presenting himself as the thoughtful antidote to Allardyce’s egotistical braggadocio. He has spoken to the correct people, rather than undercover reporters posing as agents.
He has been a safe pair of hands, without being a stooge. While Wayne Rooney will be restored to the side against Scotland, dropping the skipper, as Southgate did in Slovenia, was a bigger, bolder step than any the seemingly fearless Allardyce was prepared to take. It was not merely a footballing measure: it indicated an overdue shift in attitude after years when England indulged the famous. If it proved his reign will be a meritocracy, Southgate may be worth anointing already.
He has shown independence of mind without appearing revolutionary. Jesse Lingard did not figure in Allardyce’s only squad, but was parachuted into Southgate’s first starting XI. The Manchester United man is also a sign there is now an FA-pleasing pathway for younger players into the senior side; it is unsurprising given Southgate’s time as Under-21 manager, but the promotions of Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane cement the impression there is a natural progression. Southgate seems to be promoting the men who are prefect material and, if his choice of the responsible Jordan Henderson as captain in Rooney’s absence did not meet with universal approval, it showed the sort of characters he likes. It also illustrated that, by passing over the more experienced Joe Hart and Gary Cahill, he is unafraid to take the team in a different direction.
By ignoring Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley, he has moved away from two of Hodgson’s automatic choices, even if there was a case for including either in a squad deprived of the injured Dele Alli. The fact that he has spent his time watching Middlesbrough and Bournemouth, rather than simply heading for the most glamorous game of the day showed a willingness to consider the overlooked and pick the unfashionable.
But it also reflected the lack of English players at top clubs and that, in turn, shows why, despite the sizeable salary, the England manager’s job should attract few of the elite candidates who might have made Southgate an also-ran in the running. Instead he is the favourite. There is much to like in the things he has said and done off the field. Yet, besides a track record that encompasses relegation at Middlesbrough, there are two major areas where he has to win over doubters: results and performances.