RABBIL SIKDAR analyses the problems the Three Lions have and how their true test lies with how they fare on the big stage
So another era began for England with a kind of win and draw that didn’t exactly suggest changing times.
The sensation by the end of Gareth Southgate’s first two games in charge as interim England manager against Malta and Slovenia was the same grim feeling that has accompanied England for the past few years.
At times during his first game in charge on Saturday, it felt more like a continuation than a change, a new chapter with the same narrative and the same problems.
Southgate called for patience and it took England a while to wear Malta down, to find the combinations and space that eventually created a clear lead.
If they were comfortable they were never entirely convincing and received boos by some at the end.
This feels like something of a crisis for the English international team. Belittled by their humiliating defeat in Euro 2016 to Iceland and then forced to witness the debilitating, astonishing exposé of Sam Allardyce — a victim of his own greed in a game wired to nurture characteristics like that as a by-product of the huge influx of wealth.
For the Football Association, what they needed most was something and someone to tie the focus back to the matters on the pitch.
In stepped Southgate, the man who turned the job down in the summer because he didn’t want to be the short-term answer while they look for someone better, but accepted it here.
Involved in England’s youth set-up, he has been given the job for four games. And whereas his predecessors might have been entrusted with delivering success, for Southgate it’s a matter of restoring some dignity and pride.
It started against Malta where they needed a big win to get some momentum. Southgate called for his players to be brave and more expressive. By the end England simply resembled a functional side without obvious limitations.
The same players, the same problem and the same questions. The clearest question, that has strangled English development yet never found the light of day to be discussed, is how in a world where teams are so clearly defined by an identity and philosophy, do England lack either?
Players can only fit a system if the system has clarity and sense. Often at Euro 2016, England plodded along but without purpose.
Was this a high-pressing team or a proactive passing one? For Southgate, his four-game audition is not enough to deliver an impression of what his England side will look like.
First reason being that qualifiers are a poor reflection of progress. England are unbeaten in their past 31 qualifiers and have won their last 14.
Yet at international tournaments they have only won four games between 2010 and 2016. Southgate could win every qualifier and this would still be unworthy to cast an idea of how England will fare in tournament football.
Fabio Capello’s England had impressed everyone with their performances in the qualifiers and yet failed when it mattered.
No-one reflects this more than Wayne Rooney, at the heart of not just England’s stuttering football but every discussion.
Dropped by Jose Mourinho to good effect, he hadn’t been dropped by England managers to a not-so-good effect until Tuesday night.
Southgate did play him on Saturday and it made sense due to the players who were missing.
With the likes of Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Harry Kane out, Southgate felt he needed Rooney but the captain showed why he’s no longer the first name on the teamsheet and when these players return, Rooney must be aware that his place in the starting XI will be under greater pressure.
Against Malta he sprayed wide passes from deep yet it was Jordan Henderson, driving from deep too, combining with others and bringing them into play. The Liverpool midfielder was the more influential player.
In a team brimming with pace, energy and youth Rooney is slow and drags them down. People speak of his experience but in exactly what? Qualifiers and friendlies. England hardly require experience for these sort of games.
They could do with it in tournament football but only if it’s the right experience to win games of which they really have none.
Every country has faced a situation like this but whereas England have handled it poorly, countries like Spain dealt with it comfortably.
There was a hot debate in 2008 as to whether Real Madrid icon Raul should be included in the Spanish squad that seemed to almost create a national debate. The manager Luis Aragones had been the victim of torrential abuse and criticism, soaked it up and maintained his beliefs that Raul was a spent force.
Spain took David Villa and Fernando Torres as the front line of their glorious team and the rest is history.
In terms of playing style, dropping Rooney makes sense if the idea is to create a style and identity based on old-English pressing, intensity and energy. The focal points of England’s creativity are found in Sterling and Lallana, not Rooney.
The speed can be found in plenty of wide players and some of their strikers. The midfield guile and trickery comes from the likes of Dele Alli and Ross Barkley.
So where does Rooney exactly fit into the equation? What’s his clearly defined role that justifies his inclusion? So far there isn’t one.
For Southgate he’s saddled with the unfortunate task of trying to revolutionise a side trapped in still failing structures with so few games to prove anything.
The likely scenario is that England will comfortably win the rest of their qualifiers without ever looking like world-beaters just as they have done so under Roy Hodgson and Capello.
Perhaps that is Southgate’s biggest problem. He can win all these games and do so with big margins and even the occasional sprinkle of stardust if England look like they are finding an identity.
But they mean nothing because England always win them. Where they fail is in the tournaments themselves.