Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That is the prospect that befalls every England manager charged with keeping expectations at a manageable level and Gareth Southgate is no exception to that, particularly when it comes to squad selection.
The very people who chastise England for picking players based on reputation are the same individuals who complain about a squad defined by a lack of international experience. Those who insist players should be picked on form and based on individual merit are then quick to attack such decisions once the going gets tough.
Such are the inflated expectations of an expectant public that Southgate is arguably in a lose-lose scenario. If he follows his predecessors and has exceptional success in qualifying and friendlies, as most England managers have had, then he will be met with the same sceptical looks from those who refuse to believe that such form can be translated to the competitive arena. Based on England’s dismal tournament showings in the last decade, you can hardly blame them.
Others are quick to label Southgate as a yes man, someone who is more likely to toe the FA line, rather than rock the boat. The decision for continuity over change then becomes the subject of snide comments from those who believe that Southgate was the safe choice. It is the very reason Roy Hodgson was chosen over Harry Redknapp in 2012 and the same arguably rings true here.
But rather than slate Southgate before we have given him the chance, let’s see if he can take England in the right direction. Given the state of despair, the mess he inherited, and the fact that England were at their lowest ebb in recent history, that task should be more favourable.
His success and familiarity with the England Under 21s should at least provide a clearer pathway for young players looking to make the grade at senior level. Having a conveyor belt of players cannot, after all, be a bad thing.
And his selections mirror this. James Ward-Prowse and Michael Keane are among the latest to be given the chance to step up and, based on club form, this is more than merited. Next to be given his shot is defender Ben Gibson, called up in the aftermath of the Germany defeat because of Chris Smalling’s withdrawal, having impressed in a struggling Middlesbrough side.
Yet the hypocrisy of some sections of England supporters rings true. Few would disagree that club form, rather than name alone, should be the deciding factor in whether one receives a call up. The return of Jermain Defoe to the England fold has divided opinion owing to his age (Defoe turns 35 later this year) though it would not be wrong to suggest that Sunderland would already be a Championship team without his goal scoring exploits. On form alone he absolutely should be in the running.
The truth is that the pool of players in the top flight from which an England manager has to choose is contracting. It is no secret that the top clubs would struggle to put a side together between them comprising English players. The golden generation that came of age in the early years of the Premier League is but a distant memory.
It is simply the case that an England manager no longer has the luxury of calling on established names or world class individuals, because the national side cannot arguably lay claim to having any. A recalibration of expectations is thus necessary. England cannot hope to compete with established international sides and nor should we been fooled into thinking otherwise. Southgate though will invariably be judged against loftier goals.
What he ought to be doing is laying the foundations for a deep tournament run. England’s lack of tournament success, in which they have failed to win a knockout game since squeaking past Ecuador in 2006, speaks to such mediocrity.
Southgate needs to be backed, not derided, but a sense of perspective is also required.
Image courtesy of Ben Sutherland