The inquest was under way at San Siro and Gareth Southgate knew the questions would be direct. It had been one of those bad England nights when the team looked static, unable to build with the ball, the connections elusive.
The 1-0 Nations League defeat by Italy on Friday was deserved, largely inevitable, and it followed a quartet of vague or non-performances in the competition in June, which had brought two defeats and two draws – a substantial body of evidence for the prosecution.
As after the 4-0 reverse in the previous tie against Hungary at Molineux the England supporters present booed Southgate loudly. It felt somehow more jarring when it came from the away-from-home hardcore.
England’s charge into a brick wall has come at the worst time, with the World Cup in Qatar looming in late November, and the prospect of going there with a manager who has lost the trust of the country, drawing animosity, is real.
It was put to Southgate in exactly those terms. Remember Sir Bobby Robson before Italia 90? Southgate does. Robson had been lampooned.
“I think that’s currently where it is and I have to accept that,” Southgate said. And then he got on to the front foot. “I think I’m the right person to take the team into the tournament. It’s more stable that way, without a doubt.”
This is where we are, two months before the finals, with the manager forced to defend his position. He is the right man for the job – even the only one for it at this late stage – because to make a change now would be hugely risky.
Not that anybody at the Football Association is thinking about a parting of the ways. Southgate retains credit in the bank after reaching the semi-final and final at the last World Cup and Euro 2020, respectively, and he deserves to do so.
“I’ll ultimately be judged on the tournaments and how we do in the tournaments,” he said, and he was not talking about the Nations League, in which England will begin the next edition in Group B, the second tier, the Italy result having confirmed their relegation.
The final group fixture of the campaign – and the last one before Qatar – comes against Germany on Monday night at Wembley and it has the potential to be fraught.
It is no great stretch to imagine an angsty crowd morphing into an angry one, venting further at Southgate, if things do not go well. And quickly, too, especially if there is an early concession. At Molineux the opening Hungary goal went in on 16 minutes. By midway in the first half the anxiety in the stands was tangible.
One of the biggest worries in Milan was Southgate’s analysis of the display. Throughout his six-year tenure he has invariably called things soundly post-match, even in the emotion of the moment, highlighting his team’s shortcomings as well as where they have succeeded.
Gareth Southgate fears that Kalvin Phillips will miss the World Cup, describing the midfielder as a “big doubt” as he fights to recover from a serious shoulder injury. Phillips, who was England’s player of the season in 2021-22 and a key member of the team that reached the European Championship final, has barely featured for his new club, Manchester City, who he joined from Leeds in a £42m deal over the summer.
The 26-year-old has managed only 14 minutes across three substitute appearances and the City manager, Pep Guardiola, said at the start of this week that surgery was the only solution. Phillips has dislocated the shoulder at least three times – first at Leeds and now City. England kick-off their World Cup campaign in Qatar against Iran on 21 November. They play their final game before then against Germany at Wembley in the Nations League on Monday night.
Southgate said: “There’s the recovery from the surgery for which there’s an estimated time and then there’s the reality of how much football he might have [before the World Cup] and how much football he’s had in the last eight weeks. So he’s, of course, a big doubt.” Southgate did not reveal the timeframe regarding Phillips’ rehabilitation. David Hytner
The balance was askew on this occasion as Southgate said the stats had looked OK in terms of possession and shots on target. His players had got into good areas; it was just the key pass or the final action which had let them down.
“I don’t think that the performance was far off and I know that will get derision just because we are on the back of a run of defeats,” he said.
Scoreboard journalism, they call it in the Netherlands. But it was surely not the case on this occasion because England did not just miss the small details. They were singularly unable to play through and around an Italy line-up that lacked important players, including Federico Chiesa and Ciro Immobile.
When England are on song, they win the ball high up and attack quickly. But it has come to feel like a different and more draining story when they are asked to progress the game through the thirds against well-drilled opponents who keep plenty of men behind the ball. Which brings us to the issue of a tempo-setting midfielder – or the absence of one.
Southgate spoke at length about systems, explaining why three-at-the-back remains his preference, even if (in an ideal world) he might prefer four. He mentioned how he had only two pure left-backs – Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell – saying the latter was more of a wing-back and how, if he wanted to play a four, “there’s a risk we play a right-footer [presumably Kieran Trippier] on the left and then we’d be criticised for the wrong balance”.
Southgate said “the defenders that are playing well are playing in back threes” at club level and he noted Reece James played mainly as a right wing-back at Chelsea. “It [a back three] gives us the best chance over the next few months … [we have] depth in those positions where, if we get injuries, we are not changing the system and then starting from scratch.”
But the formation was not the issue against Italy, rather the lack of control at the back of midfield, a player to progress the ball – somebody like, say, Jorginho in the opposition’s colours.
Southgate has suggested he does not have such a player, meaning he does not see Declan Rice that way, or any of his other regular selections. It talks in turn to his desire to persist with Harry Maguire in the back three, whom he considers a reliable passer under pressure.
Southgate tried to get Phil Foden to drift in from the right to link the play but then there was no threat from the Manchester City man in the final third. The manager, seemingly, cannot lay his hands on a vital component and it is easy to say that he ought to have found it by now.
The defence of the showing against Italy felt as though it came straight from the deflection tactics playbook. He knows how important it remains to keep the heat away from his players, particularly as they struggle; to ensure that the England shirt is “lighter to wear”, as he puts it. If he has to bear the brunt of supporters’ frustration, then so be it.
“I’ve seen every other England manager have it,” Southgate said. “I know how the game is and it turns so quickly. I’ve got to deal with it in my own way and the biggest thing is to make sure the team stays on track, that we keep doing the things we think are right.
“It’s my job to take the pressure off the players. If the reaction is towards me, that’s absolutely fine because I’m 52 and I’ve been through pretty much everything.”