South­gate tells Eng­land ‘You are not big play­ers’

Pre­mier League bubble is misleading, says man­ager Play­ers must ‘learn’ from to­day’s Lithua­nia match

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By John Percy

Gareth South­gate has de­liv­ered a sober­ing re­al­ity check to his Eng­land squad af­ter in­sist­ing there were no “big play­ers”, ahead of the fi­nal World Cup qual­i­fier in Lithua­nia.

With qual­i­fi­ca­tion to next year’s tour­na­ment in Rus­sia se­cured, South­gate is pre­par­ing to ex­per­i­ment with a back-three de­fence, while goal­keeper Jack But­land will be given an op­por­tu­nity to im­press. Dele Alli is also poised to re­turn af­ter his one-match sus­pen­sion as Eng­land at­tempt to en­sure to­day’s dead rub­ber can lift the air of neg­a­tiv­ity around the team.

But South­gate has warned his play­ers that they have it all to prove, as they are yet to suc­ceed on the in­ter­na­tional stage. “Are they big play­ers un­til they win? We’re talk­ing about big play­ers be­cause of trans­fer fees or be­cause they are play­ing in the Cham­pi­ons League,” he said. “When we are in semi-fi­nals, fi­nals and win­ning tro­phies, then I think we’re big play­ers, but un­til that point we have it all to prove. I am the same as coach, so I don’t dis­as­so­ci­ate my­self from that.”

The ex­per­i­men­tal back three is ex­pected to con­sist of Gary Cahill, John Stones and Michael Keane, while But­land will earn his sixth in­ter­na­tional cap. But­land has en­dured a frus­trat­ing pe­riod wait­ing for his chance to dis­place Joe Hart af­ter miss­ing 16 months with a suc­ces­sion of an­kle in­juries.

And the Stoke City goal­keeper is de­ter­mined to seize his chance and stake a claim to be Eng­land’s No1 in Rus­sia next sum­mer.

“I’m look­ing to con­tinue my club form and keep a clean sheet,” he said. “Any op­por­tu­nity to play for your coun­try is a mas­sive one. I can only do so much at club level, so this is an op­por­tu­nity to show what I can do and punch my ticket for Rus­sia.”

A Lithua­nian jour­nal­ist asked Gareth South­gate if he had brought some warm clothes to Vil­nius – be­cause Roy Hodg­son had got it wrong when Eng­land played here al­most two years ago to the day and found it un­com­fort­ably chilly on the touch­line as the mer­cury plum­meted.

South­gate did not quite know how to an­swer but the Eng­land man­ager did con­tinue his own at­tempts to lower the tem­per­a­ture. There is, in South­gate’s anal­y­sis, no room for fever­ish ex­pec­ta­tion when it comes to eval­u­at­ing where his team are at and what can be ex­pected in Rus­sia next sum­mer. Qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the World Cup was sealed at Wem­b­ley last Thurs­day in the drab 1-0 win over Slove­nia, when the big­gest cheers came af­ter pa­per aero­planes were thrown on to the pitch. Eng­land flew into the Lithua­nian cap­i­tal yes­ter­day to ful­fil their fi­nal qual­i­fi­ca­tion tie, with the mod­est hosts also hav­ing noth­ing of con­se­quence to play for, and South­gate had his own cold blast when asked to as­sess his team and whether he was in dan­ger of talk­ing them down be­cause there were, nev­er­the­less, some “big” play­ers among them.

“Well, are they big play­ers un­til they win?” he re­sponded. “We’re talk­ing about big play­ers be­cause of trans­fer fees or be­cause they are play­ing in the Cham­pi­ons League. But when we are in semi-fi­nals, fi­nals and win­ning tro­phies, then we’re big play­ers. Un­til that point, we have it all to prove.

“I am the same, as coach, so I don’t dis­so­ci­ate my­self from that. But we can’t con­sider our­selves big play­ers. Big play­ers are Gerard Pique, Ser­gio Ramos, Ser­gio Bus­quets, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer – I could go on. That’s what big play­ers are.

“We cre­ate a bubble in our coun­try around the Pre­mier League be­cause of the money, be­cause of the pro­file of it. We have it to prove. No prob­lem. Th­ese guys are hun­gry to prove it.”

It is a bubble South­gate is cer­tainly prick­ing. The play­ers are hun­gry, hope­fully, and their man­ager has re­it­er­ated how much his squad want to get bet­ter and want to suc­ceed. Yet it may come as a sur­prise that he does not re­gard Harry Kane, one of the most cov­eted strik­ers in Europe, Dele Alli and Mar­cus Rash­ford, two of its most ex­cit­ing young tal­ents, or even Gary Cahill, who has Pre­mier League medals with Chelsea, as “big” play­ers on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

It is a fine line for South­gate, who should be com­mended for his hon­esty, and he is un­de­ni­ably right in at­tempt­ing to de­flate any hint of an ef­fort to talk Eng­land up. But does talk­ing in this fash­ion also, po­ten­tially, lead to an ex­cuses cul­ture? Is there is the risk of a dan­ger­ous fa­tal­ism?

For South­gate, it is sim­ple. He has a young squad. He has a squad who need to be nur­tured but are also still in a frag­ile state, and it was in­ter­est­ing that, a year into the job, he once more ref­er­enced the Ice­land de­ba­cle from Euro 2016 and how that scar hurt.

“We’re pick­ing this up be­cause of Ice­land as much as any­thing, and years of not suc­ceed­ing to the level the coun­try be­lieves it should,” South­gate said. “Th­ese lads are go­ing to need sup­port. It’s not go­ing to help them if the neg­a­tiv­ity is as high as it can be. For me, as the coach, no prob­lem. That’s my re­al­ity from the last 20 years [since his Euro 96 penalty miss). If peo­ple want to have a go at me, no prob­lem.”

Fabio Capello, when he was Eng­land man­ager, la­belled it as “the fear” of wear­ing the Three Lions shirt that weighed on the play­ers. “I think it’s prob­a­bly our big­gest chal­lenge,” South­gate said. “The world of in­ter­na­tional sport is a hugely dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment. Very tough for young peo­ple.

“Foot­ball is the most dif­fi­cult be­cause the spot­light is the big­gest and peo­ple ex­pect per­for­mance now. I un­der­stand that be­cause I am 47 and I have lived through it, but for young kids who are 19 and 20 and 23, it is not so easy to ra­tio­nalise.”

Fair enough. Ex­cept, while South­gate talks a sober­ing game, and even if he is right and Eng­land do not have any “big play­ers”, the re­al­ity is this team do not add up to the sum of their parts. Yet. Club per­for­mances are not matched by those for their coun­try.

Whether that is due to poor coach­ing, se­lec­tion or per­for­mances – “the fear” – it still has to be ad­dressed. South­gate is buy­ing time but the clock is tick­ing. Af­ter to­day there are four friendlies – Brazil and Ger­many next month and then Hol­land and Italy in the spring – be­fore he fi­nalises not just his squad but his ap­proach to Rus­sia.

“We want to come out of this match learn­ing things. We don’t want to waste the fix­ture,” South­gate said. So, play­ing Lithua­nia does mat­ter. Eng­land need to get over them­selves. They need to be as­sertive. South­gate has given them their re­al­ity check. Eng­land have to start re­act­ing.

Re­al­ity check: Gareth South­gate says his play­ers have much to do to prove them­selves on the big stage

Star of the show: Harry Kane with the Eng­land squad in Vil­nius; af­ter years of English un­der-achieve­ment, man­ager Gareth South­gate says his play­ers squad need sup­port

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