England managers don’t tend to get a long honeymoon period, let alone one that nearly lasts four years but it appears Gareth Southgate is facing his first real test of management skills in the Three Lions hotseat.
A run to the World Cup semi-finals as well as the last four of the Nations League since the nadir of being dumped out by Iceland in the last-16 of Euro 2016 in Roy Hodgson’s final game has ensured that Southgate has won plenty of public backing some of his predecessors could only have dreamed of.
However England’s performances on the pitch have slumped since finishing third in the Nations League tournament last year and their performances this campaign in all four of their games have been far from convincing.
Harry Kane looks on during England’s 1-0 defeat by Denmark in the Nations League on Wednesday that saw the Three Lions put in an ill-disciplined display
Alarm bells have started to ring following the surprise 1-0 Wembley defeat by Denmark on Wednesday.
While the performances have not been awful, they do leave much to be desired. However Southgate appears to be slowly losing control over how to keep his side in check following an increase in disciplinary issues both on and off the pitch.
Here Sportsmail breaks down where it is all unravelling and offers solutions for how Southgate can regain control of a team losing its way on the road to Euro 2020 next summer.
Gareth Southgate is facing arguably his most rocky period as England manager
Off the field issues
When Southgate took the England job he was applauded for the relaxed way he went about treating his players as well as those associated with the England team.
That’s not to say there were no rules but players were trusted to do what they wanted in their free-time while with the squad.
A similar ‘weapons down’ approach was taken with the media, opening up access to the England camp in Russia when varied journalists were invited to take part in darts matches with the players.
The pay-off in this approach was an instant level of respect from players and the media alike, and even if that wasn’t offered he certainly wasn’t making any enemies.
Long term though it might just be starting to show its negative effects.
Ahead of England’s first games in 10-months back in September, Southgate was given a taste of what was to come when Harry Maguire was arrested in Greece following an altercation with police.
Tammy Abraham (left) and Ben Chilwell (right) were the latest England internationals to breach Covid-19 protocol as they attended a surprise party for the former over the weekend
Forward Jadon Sancho (left) also breached Covid restrictions by attending a party
While that was not while on England duty, he was forced to drop the defender from the squad for the matches against Iceland and Denmark.
Yet there soon was a breach under Southgate’s watch when young stars Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were caught breaking Covid-19 protocols by inviting girls back to a hotel room.
Southgate acted again by purposefully not selecting them for this week’s round of international games.
However these measures don’t appear to be instilling responsibility amongst his squad or even show an element of deterrent.
There has since been another Covid-19 breach involving his young stars with Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho attending a party in the run-up to the international break.
In defence of the players, none of their predecessors in a Three Lions shirt have had anything like the regulations we now all have to live with, which perhaps naturally would lead to more breaches. For instance how many footballers have ever been banned from attending an innocent party?
But Southgate has not missed an opportunity to remind his senior players of their responsibility while representing England. Constant breaches in return seem to be a message they are not listening.
The latest fiasco follows Phil Foden (right) and Mason Greenwood (left) lockdown breach in Iceland when the pair of them invited girls back to the team hotel breaking Covid-19 protocol
On the field issues
One aspect of Southgate’s reign that he cannot blame on Covid is his side’s inability to keep their composure on the field, especially post-lockdown.
England players have only ever seen 18 red cards, yet three of those have come in three of their four Nations League matches this term.
Before September, England hadn’t seen a red for over six years when Raheem Sterling was sent off in a pre-World Cup friendly against Ecuador.
But Kyle Walker opened the floodgates in the 1-0 win at Iceland last month following two fouls that led to his marching orders.
Maguire’s nightmare in recent times continued on Wednesday when he too saw red following fouls resulting in bookable offences in just half-an-hour.
Harry Maguire was given his second yellow card in just over 30 minutes following a late challenge against Denmark leading to his early sending off at Wembley
Reece James (2) act of dissent towards the referee at the final whistle also saw him dismissed
James’ red card was the third for England in just four Nations League games, with Kyle Walker picking up the first in the 1-0 win over Iceland back in September
Reece James’s red card may have come after the final whistle following dissent and it appears to show England are losing their heads on the pitch as well as off it.
Penalties are being given away liberally too. Just when England looked to have won in Iceland through a stoppage time penalty back in September, they immediately conceded a spot-kick from the restart after Joe Gomez clumsily bundled over his opponent.
England got away with it in Reykjavik when Iceland missed from 12 yards, but that was not the case at Wembley earlier during this international break when Romelu Lukaku gave Belgium the lead from 12 yards after a wild Eric Dier slide tackle on the Inter Milan striker.
They may have come back to win that game but their lack of composure finally caught up with them on Wednesday when Walker was slightly late with his challenge in the box resulting in Christian Eriksen dispatching Denmark’s winner from the spot.
Penalties admittedly seem to be on the increase in the modern game and while some, like Denmark’s, could be argued as being soft, England have to adapt to these issues and they have had long enough now to do so.
Eric Dier’s wild sliding tackle on Romelu Lukaku saw him concede a penalty during England’s 2-1 victory over Belgium on Sunday
England though were made to pay the penalty against Denmark on Wednesday when Christian Eriksen fired home the game’s only goal from 12 yards
What are Southgate’s solutions?
The most fragile aspect of trying to bring some control over Southgate’s motley crew is how he now deals with off the field breaches. The punishment at this time is expulsion from the squad for at least one batch of international matches.
Southgate is perhaps wary of turning into too much of a disciplinarian given how that approach spectacularly backfired for Fabio Capello at the disastrous 2010 World Cup
However his current deterrents do not appear to be working. The way it is going he may run out of players to pick to the point he may have to offer recalls to the likes of David Beckham who even now at 45 would crawl out of a sickbed if he had the chance to play for the Three Lions again.
Southgate will be wary of taking an ultra discipline approach that alienated Fabio Capello from much of his squad at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa
The lack of ‘Beckhams’ in his team may hint at the issue of just how young and inexperienced his squad is. It is perhaps now more than ever he needs his senior stars to help bring about order in the dressing room.
As by far England’s most senior stars who have managed to avoid controversy Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford perhaps should be helping drive home Southgate’s message to his squad.
No one is expecting England stars to live like monks, they never have after all, but Southgate may have to start influencing the dressing room leaders he know he can trust to become more demanding of his squad. A standard needs setting and looking up to.
Southgate’s red cards problem appears to be mainly a tactical one, aside from Reece James’s wild outburst at the referee which led to his post-match dismissal. Petulant and needless from the Chelsea right-back on his full debut but his passion won’t have gone missed and can be considered as a one-off.
Southgate may have to demand more from his experienced squad stars such as Harry Kane (left) and Marcus Rashford (right) to drum home the responsibilities of playing for England
England at least haven’t been picking up red cards for violent conduct which would be more concerning. As such Southgate’s can align the red cards and conceding penalties issues into one which needs to cut out niggly fouls and poor challenges.
A leaky defence and a well out of form Maguire isn’t helping his cause but the problems England get themselves into are coming from rather careless attempts to win the ball an an era where it seems easier than ever to win a penalty kick and draw a card for an opponent.
He may need a fresh mind on it, and he could do worse than seeking advice from former international team-mate and ex-Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand.
Ferdinand is an advocate for claiming the best defenders don’t need to forced to make a tackle and given his international experience could offer a different perspective that the Three Lions set-up looks like it needs.
Whatever Southgate chooses to do, sticking with his current methods does not appear to be working.
The vastly experienced Rio Ferdinand is an example of how Southgate can seek assistance outside of the England set-up to try and cut out his side’s small but costly errors at the back