Can Gareth Southgate take England to the top?
Much was made of the Three Lions' run at the World Cup. Gareth Southgate won his nation's heart. Social media went ablaze with a movement. #ItsComingHome. Unfortunately, it never did.
The England team under Southgate is good, just not good enough. Results are great when faced with an average team. Against world-class sides, it's a different story, particularly in competitive matches.
To think the 48-year-old was in the final ten for FIFA's best manager award is amazing. How does anyone become a top manager by beating Panama, Tunisia and Sweden? England made it to the semi-final of the World Cup by crawling through on penalties after drawing 1-1 with their third-toughest opponent in the tournament, Colombia, then beat a Swedish side rebuilding following the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era. Yes, the Swedes beat Italy over two legs to make it to Russia but we all know the state of Italian football at the moment.
More significantly, the Three Lions fell to Belgium twice in the same tournament. Add in surrendering a lead to Croatia when it mattered most. A place in the final and the history books was at stake.
Three wins, a draw and four losses from their last eight competitive matches is not the record of a world-class team or manager. Especially so when two of those wins are against teams ranked significantly lower than the Three Lions.
You can count the draw as a win after it was secured through the luxury of penalties, a facet of the game at which England has long struggled. Yet, there is no running away from the fact that when faced with a top team, England easily finds a way to bottle it.
That was crystal clear in the last three matches. Against both Belgium and Croatia, the better sides won. The latest capitulation came in their UEFA Nations League match, at home to Spain.
An inability to draw against a Spanish team in transition after a woeful World Cup is cause for serious concern. At home at Wembley with Luis Enrique making his debut in the dugout, La Furia Roja still defeated Southgate's men hands down.
Spain was nowhere near their best. The former Barcelona manager is yet to settle on the job or stamp his image on the team. The usual tiki-taka passing game now associated with the team was barely visible. England still came up short. Away legs against Croatia and the Spaniards will be more difficult. The Three Lions face the prospect of relegation to the Nations League's second tier.
No doubt, Southgate wants to take England to the top of FIFA's rankings rather than to the middle teens among UEFA's. England needs to improve on their World Cup performance to challenge for glory. They needn't do that in the Nations League. There is also the traditional UEFA qualifying route to the Euros. ONe way or the other, England should arrive. Making a statement once there is unlikely, however.
The answer is in the results. England keeps losing to top sides. The manager hasn't found a way to fix that. A quick peek at his managerial experience to this point doesn't offer encouragement.
Southgate made his bow in 2006 with Middlesbrough. After an initial 12th-place finish in the Premier League, the club was relegated under his watch. He was sacked while struggling in the Championship.
His time as manager of the England under-21 team? Under him, the Three Lions qualified for the European Under-21 Championship in 2015. They were knocked out in the group stages, finishing last.
This is not great but doesn't mean he can't do much better with the national team moving forward. It's just difficult to imagine. Bottom line, under his guidance, England face a steep uphill battle to reach the top.