So, it turns out dropping Wayne Rooney isn’t the simple cure to England’s problems. They run much deeper than that.
“We have taken over a mess, really,” interim manager Gareth Southgate said after seeing his team stutter to a scarcely deserved 0-0 draw at Slovenia in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.
Southgate has been in charge for two weeks after coming in as an emergency replacement for Sam Allardyce and clearly understands the challenge facing him and the national team, which possibly reached an all-time low in losing to Iceland in the last 16 of the European Championship in June.
Given four matches in a caretaker role before the Football Association decides on a permanent successor to Allardyce, Southgate has presided over a tedious 2-0 home win over Malta and then the draw in Ljubljana. The mid-term report on Southgate? That pretty much nothing has changed.
In fairness to Southgate, he has had little time to implement his own ideas and he was brave enough to make a call many England managers wouldn’t have taken – dropping the out-of-form Rooney.
But the two games highlighted many of the failings that have blighted England’s players for years. Poor technique under pressure. No confidence. No identity. No plan.
Some of that might be understandable at this point in time, given that the team has had three coaches – and therefore three different managerial approaches to take in – in the past five months. England has a young side, especially in attack, and it showed in a frantic, error-strewn display against Slovenia.
“We’re very much a work in progress, as far as I can see,” Southgate said. “It is difficult to judge how hard to go in when you’ve only had them for such a short period of time and a lot of them are as inexperienced as they are. I’ve got to balance setting the challenge right for them as a team, demanding as much as possible, but also being realistic about how quickly we can adapt to a style of play.”
England has been criticized in recent years for the ponderous nature of its build-up play and Southgate is clearly urging his players to get the ball forward quicker and sharper. Hence, the decision to drop Rooney.
But it simply made England’s players look panicky as they launched attacks. There were also some basic errors in technique and passing, not forgetting the two woeful back-passes – by Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson – that led to one-on-one chances for Slovenia.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart saved England on those occasions, as he did a few other times. Without him, England, which had only three shots on target, would have lost. As it is, the draw left the team top of Group F by two points after three games.
Put simply, England’s players are still failing to perform in a national jersey at the same level they do for their clubs in the Premier League. Rectifying that is the challenge for the next permanent England manager, whether it’s Southgate or someone else.
For now, after a whirlwind fortnight, Southgate just wants a break. Asked about his chances of getting the job fulltime, he laughed and said: “I’m going to have a couple of days to go and sleep.”