Manager has made some difficult calls since taking over and results have improved
LONDON: By dropping Wayne Rooney and dragging his players out of their comfort zones, England manager Gareth Southgate has attempted to draw a line beneath the team’s calamitous 2016 and propel them to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Humiliated by Iceland at Euro 2016, England then saw Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson’s successor as manager, farcically brought down by a newspaper sting after just one game in charge.
Southgate has done his best to steady the ship, initially on a temporary basis and now full-time, and steeling his young players for adversity has been his number-one priority.
“The first thing is to recognise the performance in the Iceland game was not what everybody was expecting,” Southgate’s assistant, Steve Holland, explained last week. “Gareth has been very interactive with the way he has dealt with it. He’s been asking the players what they thought and not necessarily telling them what he thinks.”
In a show of Southgate’s determination to rattle his players’ gilded cages, he surprised them at the start of the current international get-together by hauling them away to a military training camp.
England’s millionaire players had to erect their own tents, cook their own food and complete a gruelling obstacle course, all in the name of teaching them how to think on their feet.
“In a football match, different stuff happens — people get sent off, you go 1-0 down — and it’s about seeing how we can adapt to different situations,” said striker Harry Kane. “Being in the woods camping or doing different obstacle courses, it was about adapting to whatever was thrown in front of us.”
Sidelining Rooney has been Southgate’s biggest call so far and followed an embarrassing incident when the Manchester United forward was pictured looking the worse for wear at the team hotel.
Rooney, 31, was England’s captain and remains their record scorer, but losing his place at United has cost him his spot in the national team’s pecking order.
Theo Walcott and his injury-cursed Arsenal club-mate Jack Wilshere have also slipped from view.
A new nucleus is taking shape, based around a core of young Tottenham Hotspur players in Kane, the dazzling Dele Alli, Eric Dier and the full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.
Southgate has awarded several new caps and given chances to players like Jesse Lingard and Nathan Redmond, whom he trusts from his time as England U21 manager.
Burnley centre-back Michael Keane has been blooded, while Jermain Defoe’s goal-scoring feats for relegated Sunderland have seen him called in from the cold at the age of 34.
The quest for greater tactical flexibility saw England line up in a 3-4-3 formation in March’s 1-0 friendly defeat in Germany, reflecting the system’s growing popularity in the Premier League.
England are unbeaten in their six qualifiers to date and sit two points clear of Slovakia atop Group F after snatching a 2-2 draw against Scotland on Sunday.
A place at the World Cup in Russia is beckoning and Southgate admits he is already thinking about how he will avoid history repeating itself if and when England get there.
“The challenge is, how do we become the best team in the world?” he said. “We can only take steps at a time and work as a team to improve every area, whether that’s technical, tactical or psychological.”