Vote of confidence in Southgate as squad fights to secure improved World Cup send-off


n exhilarating second half and nearly a memorable comeback win should go some way to shifting the mood around Gareth Southgate and England ahead of the World Cup, even as their winless run stretched to six games.

For the under-pressure England manager, a mixed night, but still his side’s best in this Nations League campaign, was partly a vindication while also adding to the scrutiny on his decisions.

Ultimately, England’s final fixture before Qatar is only likely to confirm existing narratives around the 52-year-old. Southgate’s supporters will see game-changing substitutions and a squad clearly united behind him, but his detractors could point to the selections of Harry Maguire and Nick Pope, and another flawed display.

It was difficult to know how to feel after England recovered from 2-0 down to lead, only to concede a late equaliser, but on balance Southgate could be buoyed by a vote of confidence from his players, an improved display and a better-than-expected response from the crowd.

After being booed by England fans in the last two fixtures, including after the 1-0 defeat to Italy on Friday, Southgate was anxious about the possible response here but, although the atmosphere was often subdued, there was none of the open dissent which coloured England’s previous home game, the 4-0 defeat to Hungary at Molineux in June.

The squad also offered clear evidence of their continued belief in Southgate, rallying from 2-0 down when heads might easily have dropped.

The manager afterwards revealed that his players had held crisis talks without the coaching staff in the wake of their Nations League relegation in Milan, and they showed encouraging commitment and energy in the second half.

That Southgate conjured the comeback with a double substitution was also significant, given one criticism levelled at him, even when England were reaching the semi-final of the last World Cup and final of last summer’s Euros, was his inability to change games from the bench.

The introductions of Mason Mount and Bukayo Saka for Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling, who missed two fine opportunities in the first half, shifted the momentum, and within 10 minutes England were level at 2-2.

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Luke Shaw halved the deficit by scoring at the back post in a goal reminiscent of his finish in the final of Euro 2020, and then the substitutes combined, Saka playing in Mount, who swept home a brilliant finish.

Harry Kane scored England’s third with an unstoppable penalty to move within three goals of Wayne Rooney’s all-time goal record, after the outstanding Jude Bellingham was fouled. At 3-2, Southgate was heading for redemption, making the late equaliser all the more frustrating.

As for the negatives, Maguire’s mistakes for Germany’s first two goals were deeply uncomfortable for the manager, who said last week he was happy to stake his “reputation” on the struggling centre-half.

Anyone who has watched Maguire play for Manchester United for the past year cannot have been surprised by his clumsiness and lack of confidence for the opening goal, when he lost possession to Jamal Musiala before kicking the teenager and conceding a penalty, converted by Ilkay Gundogan. He also lost the ball high up the pitch for Kai Havertz’s brilliant strike to make it 2-0.

Picking Maguire, who has been dropped by United boss Erik ten Hag, was always a risk for Southgate, who will now find it increasingly difficult to justify the inclusion of one of his most trusted lieutenants for Qatar.

Plainly, there are reasons to be concerned about England’s form.

The decision to play Pope ahead of Aaron Ramsdale was also questionable, and the goalkeeper spilled Serge Gnabry’s shot to Havertz for Germany’s 87th-minute equaliser and looked uncomfortable with the ball at his feet all night. With Jordan Pickford set to return for the tournament, the identity of Southgate’s No2 should be a moot point, however.

In the negative column was also the fact that England shipped three goals, despite playing a system which is supposed to offer defensive security at the expense of an attacking player.

Southgate insisted the formation was not to blame for any of Germany’s goals, but it was harder for the manager to sell his bottom-heavy set-up after a game when his side needed to score four times to win.

England’s next fixture is against Iran on November 21, and they will go into their opening group game in Qatar on their longest-ever winless run before a major tournament.

Plainly, there are reasons to be concerned about England’s form, and an erratic and entertaining draw will not squash the doubts about Southgate.

Last night should, though, offer some hope that England and their manager still have the togetherness and quality to put this dismal Nations League campaign behind them and come good again.

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