Gareth Southgate: England interim manager ‘still has much to prove’

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Gareth Southgate: England interim manager ‘still has much to prove’

Gareth Southgate reached the midway point in his four-game tenure as England manager on a torrid night in Slovenia – still searching for the compelling evidence that will land him the full-time job.

The 46-year-old walked into a team and a Football Association in turmoil following the hasty departure of predecessor Sam Allardyce after just 67 days, one game and conduct regarded as unbecoming for his position.

Southgate was never going to apply a quick fix, and how it showed as England leaned heavily on the brilliance of goalkeeper Joe Hart and large slices of luck to scrape a 0-0 draw in the World Cup 2018 qualifier in Ljubljana.

How does Southgate stand after Slovenia?

The FA will not consider the next step in its succession plan until after England’s next qualifier against Scotland at Wembley on 11 November and the home friendly against Spain four days later.

This gives Southgate the opportunity to get the big result he needs so momentum can gather in his favour after two colourless, largely disappointing displays in the 2-0 home win over Malta and the draw in Slovenia.

Southgate – highly regarded within the FA for his work with England Under-21s – has looked and sounded the part. If the FA was searching for someone to restore dignity after the turbulence surrounding Allardyce’s departure, he is the perfect fit.

The former England defender has been impressive in all aspects off the pitch since taking interim charge.

He has handled himself in the calm, assured manner for which he is known. He took the ruthless decision to drop captain Wayne Rooney, a player he figured alongside for England and someone he spoke glowingly about before leaving him on the sidelines in Slovenia.

And he was also impressive as he sat alongside Rooney in Ljubljana after making that landmark decision the night before the game, dealing with the inevitable inquest with a mixture of sensitivity and authority.

In this part of the equation he secures full marks – where work still needs to be done is in the more important area of performances and results.

The Malta victory was job done, albeit in an attritional manner against a team intent on avoiding a thrashing, while Slovenia was more a case of ‘welcome to the real world’ as England struggled to find any rhythm or purpose against a team ranked 67th in the world alongside Burkina Faso.

Southgate – who has made it clear he wants the job full-time, after suggesting in September he was not ready – joked he was heading off for a long sleep.

But he will soon be looking ahead to these next two games – and the increasing likelihood that the meeting with Scotland, on the skids after a 3-0 loss in Slovakia, will be pivotal to his chances of succeeding Allardyce permanently.

Did Southgate inherit a mess?

One phrase stuck out a mile in Southgate’s post-match analysis, as he said he has “inherited a mess”.

Did he? Should England fans actually expect no more than they have seen in two performances lacking in spark and inspiration against Malta and Slovenia?

Southgate is correct to suggest he was parachuted into turmoil after Allardyce’s hasty departure for non-footballing misdemeanours. The whole matter hit the FA like a thunderbolt, although it deserves credit for dealing with it promptly and decisively.

And no-one can seriously suggest he took over an England side in full bloom after the humiliation and shock of the exit at the hands of minnows Iceland in the last 16 of Euro 2016, a result that was a national embarrassment and prompted the instant resignation of manager Roy Hodgson.

The brave new era under Allardyce was hardly ushered in with a blaze of glory either as England only defeated 10-man Slovakia with a 95th-minute goal from Adam Lallana.

There has to be a realism about what Southgate has walked into. He is in charge of a side that was made grimly aware of its place in the world order in France – and he played no part in that.

Southgate did, however, have two eminently winnable matches to start with and, while four points keeps them top of Group F, the draw in Slovenia was the first qualifier of any kind England have not won in three years, halting a run of 14 successive victories.

He also has a squad that has talent, certainly enough to be producing better than what was on offer on Tuesday.

So yes, to a degree Southgate is correct to suggest he inherited a mess – but equally England have also been sorely lacking in fresh inspiration.

Should Southgate still be favourite for England job?

Southgate has plenty of factors in his favour – not least a shortage of alternative candidates beating a path to the FA’s door.

He is the man in possession, the man with the chance to produce the results to make the job his. He will, though, have to produce better than has been seen so far and will need to nail down the second part of this four-game trial run against Scotland and Spain.

The FA will make their next move then, which again emphasises the importance of the forthcoming games for Southgate.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger would surely be high on any FA wish list but his future is, as yet, imponderable.

He is out of contract with the Gunners at the end of the season but a new contract is on the table at Emirates Stadium and there is no guarantee a long game of patience by the FA will be rewarded.

Steve Bruce was interviewed in the summer but he is the new Aston Villa manager, which leaves Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe as the other main contender.

The England job is still Southgate’s to lose – but he needs at least one big result to score the win.