The clock is ticking for England’s tinkerman… after a challenging week Gareth Southgate has no time to rest as countdown to Euro 2020 starts
- It has been a challenging time for Gareth Southgate due to off-field issues
- Southgate doesn’t have time to rest as he must decide on his strongest team
- The England boss has frequently rotated but countdown to Euro 2020 is on
The most challenging week in three years is over so you may think that will allow Gareth Southgate a moment to have a sigh of relief.
Life is rarely simple for England’s head coach and the narrative of his past three months has been filled with issues such as racism, the unruly behaviour of travelling fans and an stupid error of judgement from an inexperienced squad member.
That was all before the last seven days, which were ruined by the remarkable loss of control from his most high-profile player in a private dining area at St George’s Park.
It has been a challenging week for Gareth Southgate but there is still much work for him to do
The incident involving Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez made matters difficult for Southgate
They were pockmarked further by the Wembley crowd senselessly booing a young professional he greatly admires.
Now the games against Montenegro and Kosovo are over, you might expect Southgate to take a moment to reset but, when you hold the particular office he does, things don’t work that way: every second counts, every decision matters. The clock is now ticking.
England’s first game of Euro 2020 is 210 days away. It may seem miles off but when you boil it down, it is no time at all. England only have four as yet to be arranged friendlies before that big date on June 14 and we are still no nearer to knowing the identity of their best team.
Southgate has made a host of alterations but he must now settle on his best starting XI
This fixture in Kosovo was England’s 10th game of 2019; five alterations to the line-up that swatted Montenegro aside at Wembley last Thursday reinforced the notion that Southgate is a modern day tinkerman – his combined total of changes for the calendar year ended on 43.
It is a remarkable figure yet you can be certain that the first half of 2020 will follow a similar pattern. How can it not? Put it this way, if the European Championships started next weekend, who would be in your starting line-up?
The question has been posed elsewhere on these pages and there is no uniform answer. You suspect Southgate, privately, is still unsure too because there are three areas that pose conundrums and you can guarantee he will spend the four months to the next camping thinking about them non-stop.
One of the key issues for Southgate is to decide who should partner Harry Maguire in defence
Let’s start with the centre of defence: who partners Harry Maguire? Tyrone Mings got his chance on Sunday night and will be thrilled with his clean sheet but there were moments when he looked uncomfortable in possession, which isn’t a great sign as Southgate wants to play out from the back.
John Stones is going through a difficult period and doesn’t look in the same shape as he was before the World Cup, while Joe Gomez is not currently getting enough minutes at Liverpool. To win a tournament, defensive solidity is a prerequisite. England don’t give the impression they have it yet.
Then there is midfield. If Southgate is committed to playing 4-3-3, who are the two to partner Jordan Henderson? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has done himself no harm during this camp nor has the classy Harry Winks, scorer of the opening goal. But did Declan Rice do enough? He has things to prove.
West Ham midfielder Declan Rice still has much to prove going into next year’s tournament
There is a pool of 13 midfielders, including the unknown quantities Jack Grealish and Phil Foden and established players such as Ross Barkley and Dele Alli, that Southgate must whittle down to six for his final 23. It is a task that will present him with countless headaches.
For Southgate to have mentioned the France trio of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Ngolo Kante as being the gold standard in midfield last Wednesday shows how much it is praying on his mind. You don’t win tournaments without exerting control in the middle and England must show they can do it.
The final piece of the puzzle is the left flank – Marcus Rashford, whose goalscoring cameo enlivened this night, Jadon Sancho or Callum Hudson-Odoi? Southgate thinks the world of Hudson-Odoi but he had a difficult time before being substituted and you wonder if he is ready for this level right now.
Marcus Rashford produced a lively cameo vs Kosovo to boost his chances of a starting berth
Graham Taylor famously dubbed the role of being England manager as ‘the impossible job’ and Southgate will most certainly have a greater understanding of what his late predecessor meant given all he has been through since the start of this campaign.
Yes, there are reasons to be positive – England are not going to be short of goals and the way they went from 1-0 to 4-0 in the blink of eye here was thrilling – but goals alone do not carry teams to the biggest prizes.
Southgate has told the players this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, a chance to play in what is effectively a home tournament. If they are to become immortals, however, the manager has to find the answers. There is no time to waste.