Gareth Southgate started his reign as the permanent manager of England with a straight-forward victory against Lithuania in a World Cup Qualifier at Wembley and an honorable defeat in Dortmund in a friendly against Germany.
Here are three key talking points from the latest international break.
Gareth Southgate: Not such a nice guy?
When Gareth Southgate was appointed as the interim manager of the England national team there were many onlookers who claimed that the 46-year-old was “too nice” to handle the pressure and scrutiny that comes with leading your country.
It was a popular line that was trotted out by media outlets, expert pundits and supporters alike. However, Southgate successfully debunked and disproved that misconception when he announced his first squad since being handed the England managerial role on a permanent basis.
Wayne Rooney, who had declared himself fit for Manchester United’s upcoming game against Middlesbrough, and Theo Walcott, arguably in the best form of his career, were both omitted from the 26-man squad that will face Germany and Lithuania. Jermain Defoe, Luke Shaw and Jake Livermore were recalled whilst four other uncapped players were also selected.
Rooney’s exclusion from the international squad came as little surprise. The 31-year-old has struggled for form and fitness at club level whilst he has been little more than a bit-part player at the new look Manchester United that is being moulded by Jose Mourinho. Rooney has scored just five goals across all competitions so far this campaign and has been resigned mostly to making substitute appearances, with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial currently residing above him in the pecking order. In short, there is compelling evidence to suggest that his career at the very top level is coming to an end. However, dropping the country’s all-time leading goal scorer was still a big call for Gareth Southgate to make and it proves that he will not bow down to players with big reputations and high profiles.
Theo Walcott was also axed by Southgate in a ruthless move that suggests that the England manager will not be afraid to dismiss those that fail to perform for him on the pitch. At club level, the winger has been in good form and has scored 17 goals for Arsenal this season – more than any other player selected in the latest international squad. But Southgate had his own opinion: Walcott had produced poor displays in his previous appearances in an England shirt and that there is no room for players that are unable to replicate their club performances.
These were bold, ruthless decisions. Maybe Southgate is not such a nice guy after all.
A change in formation, a change in direction?
There have been some early signs of progress for England under the stewardship of Gareth Southgate. These include a positive squad selection, a promising performance against Germany and a solid victory in the World Cup Qualifier against Lithuania at the weekend.
The performance in Dortmund on Wednesday evening stands out as the most positive and promising aspect of the last seven days. Southgate deployed a new-look 3-4-3 formation that was fresh, exciting and caused the German side a multitude of problems and it was fascinating to watch an England side playing in a different manner to the rigid 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 systems that previous managers have utilised.
Yes, the short trip onto the continent ended in defeat against an improvised German side, but the team looked more fluid, dangerous, composed and solid for long spells of the contest than at any point in the previous decade.
The 3-4-3 formation suited the personnel at Southgate’s disposal. Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker were given free rein to provide width and make driving runs in wide areas whilst Dele Alli and Adam Lallana had the freedom to express themselves in the final third behind the lone front man. In addition to this, you can see those players that were absent from the team being able to fit seamlessly into the new system. When Harry Kane returns from injury you would imagine that he would be in his element leading the line with the creative talents of Alli and Lallana playing just in behind him.
It is telling that Southgate reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 formation against Lithuania and that the level of performance was relatively unimpressive. England scored two wonderfully worked goals and never looked like losing against opposition that aspired simply to stifle the game and pile ten men behind the ball from the opening minute, but the overall display was uninspiring.
The 3-4-3 formation is the way forward for England – the two displays over the last week clearly demonstrate that fact.
Rising stars, fallen stars and revived stars
Gareth Southgate’s new era, as the permanent manager of England at least, has thrown up some intriguing questions over the futures of a number of key players.
First, the performances produced by Dele Alli should give supporters hope for the future. The 20-year-old was impressive in Dortmund on Wednesday evening and he continues to develop into a genuine world-class talent. His creativity and innovation in possession should make him key to Southgate’s long-term plans and he is now carrying himself with an obvious air of confidence and self-belief.
Much unlike Joe Hart. The Manchester City goalkeeper is currently plying his trade in Italy as part of a season-long loan deal with Torino after falling out of favour at the Etihad Stadium. However, he looked jittery against Lithuania, on the rare occasions that he was called into action, especially at the end of the first half where John Stones had to clear the ball off the line after Hart had bungled his intervention against Vykintas Slivka. England are certainly not short of talent in the goalkeeping department with Fraser Forster, Jack Butland (who returned to training this week) and Tom Heaton all waiting in the wings – Joe Hart needs to rediscover his mojo before Southgate starts to look at other options.
Jermain Defoe marked his recall to the England squad with a vintage close range finish to take his tally of international goals up to 20. The 34-year-old is certainly not a long-term solution for Southgate but his inclusion was completely justified following his goal scoring exploits for Sunderland. Defoe’s return might just spark a reaction from Daniel Sturridge – who has been struggling for form and fitness so far this campaign.
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