Rather abruptly, Gareth Southgate finds his back pressed to the wall and it is principally because of what happened in Prague last Friday night. In the England manager’s opinion, the 2-1 Euro 2020 qualifying defeat against Czech Republic was one of the most disappointing games of his three‑year tenure. “Certainly in the last 18 months, that would be the first time that we’ve let ourselves down in terms of the level of the performance,” Southgate said.
The life of an England manager is rarely straightforward and so it was that on the eve of Monday night’s qualifier against Bulgaria in Sofia, Southgate found himself being grilled on a range of subjects but among the most insistent was a line about a player who is not even with the squad and has yet to make his senior international debut.
When James Maddison was forced to withdraw because of illness, it was reasonable to assume that he would keep his head down for the next week or so. Instead, the Leicester midfielder was photographed playing poker in a casino while his teammates slumped in Prague.
Southgate did his best to diffuse the kind of sideshow that routinely pops up in modern football, using all of his charm and the occasional injection of humour. “I don’t like losing money so a casino is not the place for me,” the manager said. “Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in Yorkshire for too long.”
Southgate said that players could do whatever they wanted after they had been released and he added that Maddison had messaged him to give him the heads-up about the publication of the story on Sunday. Had Maddison apologised? Southgate swerved that one. The manager is expected to wait until next week before he speaks to Maddison, which promises to be an uncomfortable time for the player. Southgate, though, did say one thing with a degree of force.
“I’m sure he recognises now that when you’re involved in England, there is a different sort of spotlight on you,” Southgate said. “For any young players coming into the squad, they probably aren’t as aware of that. Some of the others now are aware that when you lose a game with England, the reaction is completely different to anything you face with your club.”
Maddison’s casino visit has polarised opinion, with his supporters arguing it was hardly the most scandalous night out a footballer has had. On the other hand, the timing was poor and, at the very least, it was not a good look, allowing people to question his professional focus and feeding into the perception – fair or otherwise – of Maddison as a slightly off-message individual.
Southgate has more pressing concerns and he made the point on more than one occasion that his focus was on getting more out of the players who are at his disposal. Both he and they have had their professional focus questioned and it was revealing that Southgate referenced all of the pre-Czech Republic talk about sowing up qualification with a victory so that the excitement could truly be fired ahead of what is effectively a home tournament next summer, with so many games at Wembley.
“Maybe we were all focusing a lot on next summer, answering questions about a home tournament,” Southgate said. Was complacency at work? Southgate denied but it has been easy to make the accusation.
After Prague, the defensive implosion in the 5-3 home win against Kosovo and, going a little further back, the disappointing Nations League semi-final defeat against the Netherlands, Southgate has to ensure that a bump in the road does not become a closure.
Bulgaria are bottom of the group, without a win in six ties and their world ranking of 62 puts them in between Burkina Faso and Qatar. Under normal circumstances, a routine England win would be expected but these are not normal circumstances. Southgate knows that his team’s mindset must be right if they are to impose their quality and bounce back.
“It’s a different sort of challenge for everybody because this young team hasn’t really experienced a night like Prague,” Southgate said. “But I don’t think defeats harm teams if the reaction is good. What you learn from defeats and what you gain in resilience from them is an important part of a player’s career and a person’s life.”
England’s defensive problems have been well documented. They have conceded five times in the past two matches and have come to look wobbly on set-pieces, in particular. Southgate will make wholesale changes to the back four, bringing in Trent Alexander-Arnold for Kieran Trippier at right-back; Tyrone Mings for Michael Keane in the centre and Ben Chilwell for the suspended Danny Rose at left-back. But there will be further surgery to the lineup from Prague, with Harry Winks coming in for Declan Rice and, possibly, Ross Barkley for Mason Mount in midfield, too.
It is uncharacteristic of Southgate to make so many alterations and reflective, perhaps, of the situation in which he finds himself. But as he stressed the importance of better game management, his message was that it was no time for panic.
“We have to stay calm and make sure we don’t throw everything out of the window on the back of a result,” Southgate said. “The best way to improve is to play in the same way but play better – to do it with better detail.”