Neil Humphreys: Gareth Southgate must be bolder
If Southgate wants a 'brave' England, he must be bolder, too
SLOVENIA v ENGLAND
Wednesday (Oct 13) 2.35am, Singtel TV Ch 109 - Eleven
No other prominent nation does stage fright quite like the jittery English.
Not only are they masters of mediocrity, but they also retain the habit of mimicking a gang of rabbits caught in a stadium's floodlights.
Gareth Southgate calls for a bolder England, but he has yet to practise what he has briefly preached.
If the caretaker manager wants to end his nation's eternal farce, he must lose the fear from within, the psychological straitjacket that covers the Three Lions crest.
The World Cup qualifier against Slovenia tomorrow morning (Singapore time) affords Southgate the opportunity to shake off the shackles on the team sheet and release his creative dynamos against decent opposition.
He failed to do so in his first game.
Malta offered a benign dress rehearsal, a relaxed performance for teachers and classmates before the high school musical.
But a safety-first approach hung in the cool Wembley air as a colourless event stuttered to its inevitable, but wholly uninspiring, England victory.
When Southgate refers to the relentless pressure that surrounds the Three Lions' circus, he does so with impeccable credentials.
PLAYER TO MANAGER
He is the first England manager to have played for England since Kevin Keegan, 16 years ago. The parochial fishbowl proved too much for the combustible Keegan, who famously resigned in a Wembley toilet.
But Southgate is a cooler, reflective character.
Like Keegan, Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables, Southgate is an England manager who understands the 50 years of hurt.
He played through some of them. He lived them.
However, unlike Hoddle and Venables at least, he hasn't quite subscribed to the "best man for the job" theory that involves selecting the right footballers in the right positions, regardless of reputation or resume.
Southgate demands a braver England, but his Malta selections suggested the opposite.
Daniel Sturridge offered a risk-free pick - and scored an excellent header - but Marcus Rashford had earned a chance to dance past Malta's musical statues.
Jordan Henderson was allowed to rule the defensive midfield roost, largely because a loose 4-3-3 morphed into a 4-2-3-1 to include the thorn in every England side.
Wayne Rooney didn't deserve the puerile boos from the Wembley crowd. But he didn't deserve a starting place, either.
But the alluring cult of the England skipper, a strange phenomenon that also reeled in Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello in their blind loyalty to David Beckham and John Terry, respectively, continues to hold sway.
It's such a shame because Rooney's relegation to the bench - which is hardly a loss of face for an old-age predator - allows England's youthful line-up to take its natural shape.
If Southgate leads by bold example, he will drop his skipper against Slovenia and welcome Eric Dier back alongside Henderson.
The Liverpool midfielder's commanding performance against Malta, along with Dier's steady rise at Tottenham, presents Southgate with the kind of midfield industry and dynamism that England have lacked since Owen Hargreaves.
Indeed, history appears to be repeating itself.
England's combative, box-to-box midfield distributors are like proverbial buses. None came along for ages and then Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard came along at once.
A lull followed until Henderson and Dier suddenly trundled towards the centre circle.
Unlike the original trio, Henderson and Dier should complement each other against Slovenia. If one stays, the other goes, particularly as Henderson has added a swashbuckling element to his attacking game, which earned him a couple of assists against Malta.
Dier, still only 22, continues to improve his defensive coverage to support his intelligent distribution and passing range.
England youngsters (from right to left) England's Jordan Pickford, Eric Dier, John Stones, Michael Keane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford. PHOTO: REUTERS
Dier, Henderson, Dele Alli and Rashford, not to mention Jesse Lingard and John Stones, stand as beacons of youthful hope, a promising mix of pace, confidence and invention to go with their more experienced colleagues.
But it's either a brave new world or a bad case of deja vu.
Southgate has to pick them all because we've been here before.
A few of those young guns, along with Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, were expected to carry Roy Hodgson to glory.
But injuries, loss of form and Hodgson's obstinate caution at major tournaments soon ended the optimism.
Sam Allardyce and Southgate's first games were hardly coated in revolutionary zeal, either.
But Southgate can at least alter that perception in his second game and first real test.
He could conceivably pick a decent, workmanlike first 11 - with Rooney wearing the armband - and still take the fight to Slovenia.
But a younger, faster, riskier side might just allow England to fight the fear.
Rooney set for the axe
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: England interim manager Gareth Southgate has had to make tough decisions at Middlesbrough before, so the task of dropping Wayne Rooney doesn't faze him. PHOTO: REUTERS
England captain Wayne Rooney is set to be on the bench for the World Cup qualifier against Slovenia on Wednesday morning (Singapore time), according to media reports.
Sky and the BBC reported that, barring any late injuries, manager Gareth Southgate had decided to name the Manchester United striker among the substitutes for the game in Ljubljana.
Southgate was scheduled to give a news conference in Slovenia this morning (Singapore time).
Rooney is England's most capped outfield player, with 117 appearances, and all-time top goalscorer, but his recent indifferent form has attracted criticism.
He has scored just once in 12 games this season and only once in the last seven internationals.
The 30-year-old was jeered by some in the 82,000-strong Wembley crowd towards the end of England's 2-0 win over Malta last Saturday and that reaction triggered a debate among England supporters about his future role.
Southgate, who took over after the departure of Sam Allardyce last month, defended the player - who started as captain against Malta - and said his experience was crucial to the team.
"I think his experience, his leadership has been crucial throughout this week, not just today," Southgate said last Saturday.
"Every debate seems to focus on him, the onus on him is enormous and the criticism of him is at times unfair. He ploughs on and plays with pride and captains his country with pride."
Rooney has been a substitute in United's last three games and has also been deployed in a deeper role for England, who have a 100 per cent record in Group F.
Southgate has Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge, Theo Walcott and Marcus Rashford among striking options while Eric Dier, left out against Malta due to a hamstring problem, is likely to return in midfield alongside Jordan Henderson.
Southgate, who has called Arsenal left back Kieran Gibbs into the squad after Ryan Bertrand suffered a hamstring injury against Malta, once had the excruciating job of making close friends redundant.
Therefore, wielding the axe on Rooney would not faze him.
While in charge of Middlesbrough in 2009, staff were let go as the club attempted to cut debts at the Riverside.
"Making some really close friends redundant - that's probably as big (a decision) as you can get," he said.
"I've got to make decisions which are right for the team and whenever you select a team, with England, you're going to leave some (players disappointed)."
- Wire Services.