As Gareth Southgate prepares to face his second game in charge of the England national team, he finds himself – just like his ill-fated predecessor – with a 100% win record after just one game.
So is he in line for the job full time? Probably not if that winning record doesn’t stay at 100% after the game against Slovenia tonight. And probably not if it’s under 100% after the game against Scotland in November, too.
Only two England managers of any degree of length or permanent job status have 100% record: just Southgate and Sam Allardyce. So a win tonight would put Southgate into a league of his own, having had to defend that record on at least one occasion.
It is likely that Southgate will fade back into the U21 setup after his stint taking the reins of the big job. A bigger name, one that pacifies an expectant public will surely have to be found, but if Southgate wants the job on a permanent basis, he may just have found himself a perfect opening.
Two games against Malta and Slovenia were hardly going to be the toughest of tests for England, with or without a permanent manager, but winning those games gives Southgate some breathing space. Another turgid performance against Malta ended in a victory, but the Wayne Rooney issue has given Southgate an outball.
Having dropped his captain, a good performance against Slovenia would allow Southgate to pin the blame for a sluggish performance on sluggish players. He can capitalise with a good performance, can be seen as a man who made the big but necessary call of leaving Rooney out of the team, and a decision which bore fruit. Why wouldn’t the FA want to give the job to a man like that?
And if England do play well, and Southgate does get the job permanently, then there could be a significant honeymoon period. Leaving out Rooney will have been the first thing Southgate is remembered for. It’s easy to forget that England haven’t lost a qualifier in seven years. They shouldn’t be tough tests for Southgate, they shouldn’t be tough tests for anyone, but they will allow any new manager a fair amount of leeway before the next World Cup.
It’s all politics, in the end. If Southgate can position himself as the England manager who will make the big decisions like dropping Rooney, picking the players who fit into what he’s trying to do with the side as opposed to picking them based on their reputation or seniority, then he’ll get more of a free pass in the media. Even if he isn’t getting that at the moment: when he didn’t drop Rooney, he was a yes-man, but when he did drop him for the next game, he was bowing to media pressure. That perception is what makes or breaks you as England manager.
Nevertheless, Southgate is in an enviable position. The FA won’t want to make an immediate decision on their new permanent manager – they’ll have to make doubly sure after the Allardyce fiasco – and he’ll have time to change the perception the public and the media currently have.
If Southgate wants to be England manager at some point in his career, he’ll probably never get a better chance to stake his claim than this.