Southgate should go for form
Southgate must be bold enough to build England around red-hot attacking quartet
On paper, it's a four-match assignment for Gareth Southgate but, in truth, it's the biggest audition of his managerial career.
He has the rest of the year to prove to the English Football Association's blazer brigade that the long-term replacement for Sam Allardyce is already occupying the hot seat.
Southgate's test starts at Wembley on Sunday morning (Singapore time) in a World Cup Group F qualifier against minnows Malta, before an away match against Slovenia three days later.
The ball is in his court.
The 46-year-old has the perfect chance to show he has the ability to lead them into the future, and not just the required integrity to steady the ship for the time being.
For a start, the former England defender must show the guts to pick players based on form, and not veterans living on past reputations.
Judging by the first seven matches of the Premier League, it's the young attacking quartet of Dele Alli, Theo Walcott, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford that Southgate must try to build his team around.
Alli, 20, has carried on from where he left off last season, unhampered by his involvement in England's ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign.
The reigning PFA Young Player of the Year, with two Premiership goals in the bag, gave a reminder of his big-game temperament against league leaders Manchester City on Sunday when Tottenham Hotspur cruised to an impressive 2-0 win.
He is what former England manager Roy Hodgson envisaged Wayne Rooney to be but never became.
What Hodgson never came to grips with, Southgate must.
Scorer of the second goal against the Citizens, Alli showed all the qualities to look for in a No. 10 - intelligence, quick-thinking and sharpness in the penalty box.
Sterling's rejuvenation under Pep Guardiola at Man City is another welcome sight for the national team.
Given full licence to thrill under the attack-minded Spaniard, the fleet-footed winger is finally putting in performances that justify the £47 million ($82.5m) City paid to prise him from Liverpool.
The 21-year-old forward's ability to go at right backs at full speed and get behind defences is proving to be a major weapon in Guardiola's game plan.
In seven Premiership appearances, Sterling has already scored four goals - just two short of what he mustered the whole of last season.
On the right, Walcott presents an equally thrilling option.
When he was left out of Hodgson's Euro 2016 squad, it appeared to be the end to an unfulfilled international career.
But the 27-year-old forward looks a reborn man this season.
His four goals in his last four matches (in all competitions) have helped the Gunners bounce back from a terrible start to their league campaign.
Absolutely brilliant in the Gunners' 3-0 away win over Chelsea about a fortnight ago, he paved the way for Arsenal's first Champions League win this term with a brace in a 2-0 victory over Basel four days later.
His displays prompted his manager Arsene Wenger to say that he has "matured" into a more "intelligent" player.
Up front, Southgate has all the incentives to start Rashford ahead of Rooney, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge.
The Manchester United youngster has worked his way in the starting 11 of Jose Mourinho, who found it increasingly difficult to leave him out after his solid performances.
There was the hat-trick for the England Under-21s last month, when they thrashed Norway's U-21s 6-1 in a European Championship qualifier.
Despite starting just five games (in all competitions) for United, the 18-year-old striker has found the net four times.
His composure, trickery, pace and most crucially, form, place him ahead of his competitors in the reckoning.
Vardy is not firing on all cylinders for Leicester, while Rooney and Sturridge are not guaranteed starters for their clubs.
Given the standard of the opposition this weekend, England are almost certain to beat Malta regardless of who Southgate picks for his forward line.
Hodgson's reluctance in going the full distance when it came to discarding off-form players ultimately proved to be his downfall at Euro 2016.
Southgate can turn out to be just the breath of fresh air England need. This is his chance to stamp his mark.
Southgate ready to step up
Gareth Southgate believes he is the best man to lead English football in its moment of crisis and is happy to have Wayne Rooney by his side as captain.
Sam Allardyce's exit after just one game in charge last week saw Southgate installed as interim manager for the next four matches and he appeared before the press yesterday to deliver his manifesto.
The former Middlesbrough boss, who has been in charge of the England Under-21s for the past three years, insisted that he has the credentials to navigate the turbulent period and felt compelled to answer his country's call.
Having named his first 23-man squad, skippered once more by Rooney, on Sunday, Southgate said: "It was the moment to step up and put myself forward as leader of the group.
"The last week has been a difficult one for our organisation and I felt it was important to step forward in a leadership position.
"When I came in on Tuesday morning, I didn't expect to be in charge of the team by 6pm.
"The situation developed so quickly, but you get used in football to the sort of speed things happen.
"I'm looking forward to it, I'm excited by it. It's a wonderful job to have for whatever period of time."
Southgate was equally certain about Rooney's ability to be a figurehead for the Three Lions, as they prepare to face Malta at Wembley on Sunday morning (Singapore time) and travel to Slovenia three days later.
His role with the national side has been under heavy scrutiny since the Euro 2016 debacle but, like Allardyce before him, Southgate seens no reason to strip Rooney of the armband.
"The decision to make him captain is quite simple," he said.
"What I felt from what I have seen around St George's (Park), what I gleaned from talking to staff over the two years, is that he is the outstanding leader in the group.
"The most important thing at this time is leadership, on and off the field, and Wayne has provided that over the last two years.
"I have no doubt in my mind about keeping him in that position."
Southgate was statesmanlike and measured in demeanour, and the FA chiefs can be relatively certain he is a safe pair of hands.
But, although firm favourite to be named permanent manager, he was at pains to distance himself from any nakedly ambitious sentiments.
"I've not had a chance other than to prepare for this week on how we get the best opportunity to get the results we want. Anything beyond that can wait for when we've had some time to breathe," he said.
"I've exchanged messages with Sam. It was important to thank him. I didn't want to be seen as someone who was waiting in the wings for an opportunity.
"After these seven weeks, everyone can take a step back and think about what the future might be."
Southgate's squad are largely similar to the one chosen by Allardyce, with call-ups for 18-year-old Marcus Rashford, his uncapped Manchester United teammate Jesse Lingard and forgotten man Glen Johnson the most eye-catching changes.
He has worked with the United pair at the Under-21 level - Rashford having scored a hat-trick on his debut just last month - and is excited by their potential.
"We can all see (Rashford's) ability and the effect he's had on games, but it's his maturity around the camp," he said.
"He was still the youngest player in that Under-21 squad and he took to that no problem at all. I thought his performance was excellent.
"Jesse is a player I was really impressed with in two years working with the Under-21s. He's now establishing himself in Jose Mourinho's team and that speaks volumes for the level of performance he's hitting.
"It's an exciting moment to bring him into the squad." - PA Sport.
England caretaker manager Gareth Southgate has named the following 23-man squad for this month's World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovenia.
Fraser Forster, Joe Hart, Tom Heaton
Ryan Bertrand, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Glen Johnson, Danny Rose, Chris Smalling, John Stones, Kyle Walker
Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Michail Antonio, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling, Theo Walcott, Dele Alli
Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy.