Back in the summer I wrote what priorities Gareth Southgate had a year out from the World Cup, six months on what has been accomplished and what remains?
- Pick a Captain. As I’ve said before the importance of the captaincy is grossly over- exaggerated, but an army of Black & White cab drivers will always beg to differ. Southgate was known to disapprove of the cult of personality that followed the England captaincy when David Beckham held the armband: with good reason given the number of times during the ‘golden generation’ era the captain be it Beckham, Gerrard or Rooney tried to carry the team on their own back. Southgate has preached collective responsibility and his team have shown more mental resolve than we’re used to seeing from England, but he will still need to pick a captain ahead of the World Cup with Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson & Harry Kane the current front-runners. STILL TO DO
- Qualify. It wasn’t pretty but England managed it with a game to spare, in qualifying for a major tournament Southgate has achieved something Steve McClaren, Graham Taylor, Sir Bobby Robson, Don Revie and even Sir Alf Ramsey all failed to do at one stage or another of their tenures as England manager- although all those managers could point to tougher qualifying groups. Qualification still represents bare minimum requirement for England and Southgate has at least achieved this. DONE
- Pick a Number 1 Goalkeeper. The biggest question mark around the England squad right now and one that could linger until the summer. Southgate clearly wants to pick Joe Hart but can’t surely go with a goalkeeper not getting a regular game with his club? Joachim Loew did stick with Jens Lehmann at Euro 2008 despite the ‘keeper losing his place in the Arsenal team but Lehmann could point to an excellent World Cup 2 years earlier: Hart was a disaster at Euro 2016. Worse still Jack Butland is struggling for form in a desperately bad Stoke team which leaves Jordan Pickford the front-runner despite only having 1 cap. Hart may be trusted by his senior defenders but Pickford is playing well and his excellent distribution gives England an added dimension. Of course if Hart displaces Adrian for West Ham and shows some form he may yet be number 1 but right now Pickford looks the only option. STILL TO DO
- Central Defence. In the summer the question was who formed the central defensive partnership but things have moved on with England now going with a back 3. The change of system suits most of England’s premier defenders with the emphasis switching to ball playing defenders like John Stones and Harry Maguire. Right now Gary Cahill remains a natural fit on the left of the 3 with Maguire or Michael Keane deputising with Phil Jones or Stones playing in the central position with Stones or Joe Gomez on the right. Southgate will want to play his preferred trio in at least 3 of the 4 remaining friendlies before arriving in Russia. PARTLY COMPLETED
- Central Midfield conundrum. The central midfield pairings were so poor in qualifying Southgate switched to 3-4-1-2 to enable the defenders to provide greater creativity but finding the ideal pairing in central midfield remains a problem. Southgate had hoped Jordan Henderson could fill the link man role alongside the more defensive Eric Dier, but Henderson failed to impress in England’s first 3 games of the season and the Liverpool skipper remains both eratic and injury prone. Elsewhere Southgate was unlucky with injuries to the likes of Fabian Delph, Harry Winks and Nat Chalobah whom he wanted to audition duting the autumn. Jack Wilshere’s return to form and fitness (touch wood) has provided some welcome relief and will surely get his chance against Italy in March but as it stands Dier is the only lock in midfield for the summer. PARTLY COMPLETED
- Promote Youth. England’s last 3 games have seen 3 debutants take Man of the Match honours (Winks, Ruben Loftus-Cheek & Gomez). In addition Southgate used the autumn friendlies to hand Pickford, Tammy Abraham & Dom Solanke debuts whilst Under 20 World Cup captain Lewis Cook was added to the senior squad. Southgate is clearly practicing the ‘Club England’ philosophy the FA is keen to preach with junior level success providing a pathway to the senior side. DONE
The failures of previous England managers illustrate the folly of judging managers before they arrive at a major tournament. Southgate looks a manager increasingly comfortbale in a job he was parachuted into, he’s promoting young players and doing it his own way. It’s encouraging he’s adopted a formation he believes in (something Roy Hodgson never cracked) and will ultimately live or die by his sides performance in Russia.