England really need a mood reset from this unwelcome international break
This international break is a bit of a pain for many but it’s important for England, who need a bit of a reset after a disappointing 2022.
It’s an international break no-one really wants, has come just as the domestic season is starting to find some sort of rhythm, and may result in injuries club sides cannot afford. But England need these upcoming Nations League games against Italy and Germany. The mood surrounding the national team has seldom been so downbeat since Gareth Southgate first took the job six years ago; it could do with lightening up before the squad flies out to the Middle East in November.
This isn’t a position in which Southgate has found himself too often. It’s reasonable to say that, following the debacle that was Euro 2016 and the brief and hilarious ‘rein’ of Sam Allardyce, expectations were not high for him or the England team at the point of his appointment.
Since then, there can be little question that he has been the most successful England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, with a semi-final appearance at the 2018 World Cup, a place in the finals of the 2019 Nations League, and getting to the final of Euro 2020. But none of these achievements have resulted in any actual silverware, and after having spent the last five years crawling towards having a men’s team that won anything, the women’s team gazumped them in the summer by becoming the first senior England side to win a major tournament since 1966.
And the confidence that surrounded the men’s team was certainly shaken by their four Nations League matches played at the very tail end of last season. It’s true to say that no-one seemed to particularly want these games to be taking place at the end of a lengthy season which itself had been squeezed by the pandemic, and while draws at home against Italy and away against Germany were creditable enough results, a double beating at the hands of Hungary hinted at a team that was running on empty.
But the 4-0 home defeat at the hands of the Magyars in June raised questions that haven’t been answered yet. England haven’t played since the Hungary game, and three months is plenty enough time for a cloud of relative despondency to have descended over the team’s hopes for the upcoming World Cup. It went about as badly as could have been expected for England: a disjointed and dishevelled performance against motivated opponents.
But with results prior to that and their 1-0 defeat in Budapest at the start of that round of four fixtures having been OK, the big question ahead of the Italy and Germany games is whether the poor results of June were a flash in the pan or the first signs of a fin de siecle for arguably the strongest England team in four and a half decades.
What England really need right now is a mood-resetter; decent performances against Italy and Germany would likely provide that.
To an extent, the prognosis already looks somewhat better than it did in the summer. Marcus Rashford, for example, had undergone a torrid couple of years with Manchester United and there were fears that he may never be able to recapture the exuberance that had defined his early career in the club game, but his rapid transformation under Erik ten Hag puts him back in contention for a place in the starting team.
There has been a similar revival for Jack Grealish at Manchester City. Despite ending his first season at the Etihad with a Premier League winner’s medal, he failed to light up the pitch to the extent that a £100m signing would be expected to. But with Erling Haaland as an attacking focal point he seems to have rediscovered a little of his swagger, and marked this with his first goal of the season before these two matches.
But things have been far from perfect. Harry Maguire continues his metamorphosis from man to meme, while Kalvin Phillips is injured again and Declan Rice’s form has suffered, just as West Ham’s has.
There are players who should at least be knocking on the door of a place in this team but who won’t be due to injury or a lack of form.
England’s opponents over the course of this break both come layered with context. Italy may have failed to reach the finals of the World Cup for a second time in a row, but as their Euro 2020 win confirmed, this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be taken extremely seriously. A win in Milan on Friday night would go a long ways towards rebuilding the sense of belief that England can go some distance in the World Cup; the same may happen should they turn on the style against Germany on Monday night.
And they need that shot of optimism. Clouds are beginning to swirl with what feels like the beginning of an extremely familiar cycle of hysteria. The question of who might replace Southgate should he leave after the World Cup is very much up in the air, all the more so after the snaffling of expected successor Graham Potter.
Eddie Howe is looking at greater risk at Newcastle than at any other time since he joined. The other likely candidates are a mixed bunch. Steve Cooper is Welsh but has been involved in the England set-up before. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard may also be considered in the frame in such an eventuality, though neither of these have definitively proved their chops as managers just yet.
So there’s a lot at stake. Southgate is understood to still want to prove himself at club level, but he’s unlikely to get the same opportunity afterwards should England fail at the World Cup. And while there’s no doubt that the existence of those four summer fixtures was unwelcome, the opposite is true of their upcoming games. The Nations League may not matter that much in the overall scheme of things, but resetting the mood surrounding England could prove invaluable.