England Have Their Critics But Slovakia Win Was Southgate’s Best

England all but secured qualification for next summer’s World Cup by grinding out a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Slovakia and the players and manager deserve great credit for their conduct during the campaign.

It has been a time of great upheaval for the England set up as Sam Allardyce was sacked in disgrace and all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney retired. Southgate has really steadied the ship with his sober, pragmatic approach to proceedings, and his players have responded with six wins and two draws from eight games.

The Slovakia game was among the best wins of Southgate’s tenure and proved that they know how to dig deep and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Their mentality is growing stronger and this could be crucial as they prepare to jet off to Russia next summer.

Slovakia are ranked 22nd in the world by FIFA, nine places below England, and they have always been the second favourites to win this group. They earned a 0-0 draw with the Three Lions at Euro 2016, so the England hierarchy would have earmarked those two games as the biggest potential banana skins en route to securing qualification for the 2018 World Cup. But England put in battling performances home and away and emerged with six crucial points.

At Wembley last weekend their prospects were looking bleak as Stanislav Lobotka capitalised on poor defensive work to put Slovakia 1-0 up inside just three minutes. They carried the lead into half-time, but in the second half Man Utd starlet Marcus Rashford really stepped up and dragged his team to victory. He whipped in a clever corner, which Eric Dier nodded home at the near post, and then banged in a fine strike on the hour mark to put England 2-1 up. Rashford was a constant threat to the Slovakia defence, running at them with power and fearlessness, and he inspired all around him, despite his tender age.

England have a young side and in many ways Southgate is the perfect man to lead them. Not only is he far younger than Allardyce, Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello et al, but he cut his teeth as England under-21 manager, a period in which he worked with several of these emerging stars and learned how to mentor youngsters.

Rooney’s international retirement was a symbolic passing of the guard and their best players are now all young: Rashford and the Tottenham trio of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Dier. This quartet should form the spine of the England team for many years to come, and their cohesiveness has been encouraging during qualification. Southgate can help them reach their full potential, and they can potentially lead the Three Lions to glory.

Make no mistake: England are not at the level of many of their rivals for the next World Cup.

Their squad pales in comparison to those of France, Germany and Belgium, while South American teams like Argentina, Brazil and Chile would also fancy their chances against Southgate’s men.

In fixed odds betting England are the seventh favourites for the 2018 World Cup, behind Germany, Brazil, Spain, France, Argentina, Belgium and Italy, and that sounds about right.

Yet there are signs that England could soon shake off the mediocrity of the Rooney era – which is not a reflection on Rooney’s performances, more an acknowledgement that he was England’s only world class player during his time and never enjoyed the support he had at Manchester United, leading to underwhelming performances at major tournaments – and finally compete.

For many years now England have qualified comfortably for major tournaments and then flopped in the big games. But in Kane, Rashford and Alli they have three forwards that all have the potential to develop into world-class stars.

Kane finally got off the mark at the weekend and has gone on to win the Golden Boot in each of the last two seasons. He is sold at 27 points over at www.sportingindex.com to win it this season, and he should at the very minimum finish in the top two along with Romelu Lukaku, so that looks a good option.

Alli and Rashford are full of pace, trickery and dynamism in the final third, so England’s attack looks dangerous for the next decade.

The question marks really linger over the defence.

Southgate was a centre half, so he should help foster a strong defensive core, but he has limited raw materials with which to work. Gary Cahill and Phil Jones are decent defenders, but will never set the world alight, while John Stones remains error prone and has failed to develop into the superstar that fans hoped for. There are talented individuals coming through, like Michael Keane and Ben Gibson, and Southgate may be able to turn them into a strong defensive duo in years to come.

If he can make England a tough nut to crack defensively and get the best out of Rashford, Kane and Alli, then the Three Lions look to have a great future.

Author Bio

Martin Green is an experienced sports writer and has been covering England for many years.

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