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Gareth Southgate Versus The World

Sunday 19th March 2017
Gareth Southgate is no Scott Pilgrim. There's a slight facial resemblance but he isn't a guitar hero with magical powers hoping to break out of the garage band scene into the mainstream. Although, given the challenges he faces as England manager, the former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough defender-slash-midfielder probably wishes he had similar talents. 

A bit of magic would help Southgate muddle through the unique problems the England job entails.
What problems, you ask? England is one of the world's top football nations, isn't it? All Gareth Southgate need do is pick eligible players in the best form, adopt tactics which suit their skills, and motivate them to perform. The rest will take care of itself, right? I mean, England is where the game was born. It still has one of the deepest player pools from which to draw talent, doesn't it?

Well, those are tricky questions. Several managers have failed to get the best from England players. The talent pool isn't as big as some may believe. Nor are the top players as readily identifiable as those in other nations.

Twice, in 2000 then 2006, FIFA released results for the two surveys it calls The Big Count. Surprisingly, England is not ranked among the top ten nations for footballers no matter how you measure. Not by male, female, youth, registered, total players, or per capita. Yes, the last Big Count was taken more than a decade ago but no one has been touting a youth boom in UK football.

Where England does lead is in number of clubs overall. It's third in clubs per citizen, fourth per player. It's easier to get a game in England than anywhere but Scotland, Zambia, or Uruguay.

The problem is that statistic does not apply to the FA pyramid's top levels. Perhaps because nearly all managers are foreign, English players are not as highly valued as imports in the Premier League or Championship.
Take Manchester United, for example. Its manager is Portuguese. During this campaign, José Mourinho has largely favored Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, and Matteo Darmian over Luke Shaw at left back, being brutally honest with his reasons a fortnight ago. With the young Englishman rarely even on the bench, Mourinho has turned to Ashley Young, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Phil Jones in emergencies, the latter requiring an inhaler to make it through United's Europa League match against Rostov this past Thursday.

Young and Jones' presence on that list reveals Mou doesn't necessarily discriminate against English players. The pair, along with Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick play key roles, if reduced in the captain's case, when fit. While Mourinho values athleticism and technical ability, he prioritizes experience and intelligence in his lineups. Younger players can't provide that.

Still, there is no arguing the Special One purchased four foreign players in his first transfer window with United or that Marcus Rashford's development has been slowed by Zlatan Ibrahimović's arrival. The youngster spent most of the second half against Rostov standing next to the fourth official, then being called back, lather, rinse, repeat. Despite several big goals, especially at Wembley, Jesse Lingard has spent even more time on the bench.

Mourinho has been quoted more than once regarding things he cannot do, such as throwing away cup matches, because he manages Manchester United. He respects the club's history and that it conducts business in a certain way. Perhaps, then, he will sign a promising young English talent away from another club this summer rather than relying solely on his own youth academy for such players. United have a strong tradition in that vein. Rio Ferdinand. Ashley Young. Shaw. Even Alan Smith. If he does, however, it will be a new experience for the Portuguese.

Nor is Mourinho the only foreign manager who has greater priorities than nurturing England's future stars. When healthy, where is Jack Wilshere playing these days? Joe Hart? How often did Ryan Bertrand get a game at Chelsea? Will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain be at Arsenal next season, or a smaller club like Southampton or Bournemouth?

All this puts Gareth Southgate in a difficult position. Whereas Joachim Löw, Julen Lopetegui, and Gian Piero Ventura can visit any Bundesliga, La Liga, or Serie A stadium knowing their target players will be in the starting XI, it's a crap shoot for the English boss at Premier League venues. Visiting national managers such as Didier Deschamps, Danny Blind, and Fernando Santos are more likely to get a look at the players they came to England to scout than their host is. So, does Southgate settle for secondary choices who are playing or hope the more talented players will be prepared to seize the opportunity a run out with the Three Lions provides? The odds his gamble will pay off are long either way.

When you think about it, there's little wonder no one else wanted the job.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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