Gareth Southgate was a national hero less than a year ago as he led England to a first major tournament final in 55 years, but is now in the firing line after a humiliating 4-0 loss to Hungary.
England’s worst home defeat since 1928 leaves the Three Lions facing the ignominy of relegation from the Nations League First Division.
But it is the impact such embarrassment will have on Southgate’s preparations for the World Cup five months from now that is the most pressing concern.
England have just two matches left, away to Italy and at home to Germany in September, before starting their World Cup campaign against Iran on November 21.
The switch to a winter World Cup due to the weather in Qatar has created an oddity in the calendar which has forced international teams to play four matches this month after a physically draining campaign for many players at club level. .
World champions France are also bottom of their Nations League group without a win in four games, while Belgian Kevin De Bruyne and Dutch coach Louis van Gaal have criticized the grueling schedule.
Southgate pointed out it was a major factor in England’s failure to win four games in a row for the first time in six years.
“It’s been a really unique set of encounters,” he said. “I was worried about it before because I knew we were going to have to make changes and we couldn’t field a full squad for every game.
“I tried to give young players experience and rest some of the players who I think have had long seasons. We’re going to need them in the World Cup and we didn’t want to break them. .”
– ‘Dismissed in the morning’ –
Captain Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling were quick to answer any questions about Southgate’s future given the credit he has in the bank not only for reaching the Euro 2020 final, but also the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.
However, it was the manager who was the target of abuse from a frustrated crowd as Hungary went wild at Wolverhampton.
The 51-year-old was ridiculed with chants of “sent back in the morning” and “you don’t know what you’re doing”.
Southgate admitted earlier this week that he will “not outstay his welcome” as national team boss as criticism of his conservative approach persists.
Critics of the former Middlesbrough boss, who favors two defensive midfielders in his training, believe he has been too slow to embrace the range of attacking talents at his disposal.
Manchester City pair Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are just two of the creative options whose chances of shining on the international stage have been limited under Southgate.
However, he appeared to double down on his idea of how England can succeed in Qatar after such a disastrous Nations League campaign so far, which has featured just one goal, from the penalty spot .
“I’m very clear, I know what works for us and now I have evidence of what doesn’t,” he said.
“Tonight is another example of why this core team has been so important and why the balance of the team has to be right.”
Southgate’s loyalty to Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and Manchester United captain Harry Maguire has been questioned in the past.
But their places in the starting line-up for the World Cup look even more secure as they were rested for the loss to Hungary.
Southgate are also hoping for a return to fit and form for Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw in the coming months after failing to name a natural left-back in their squad this month.
There are concerns at the other end of the pitch too, with Southgate admitting he is concerned about an over-reliance on Kane and Sterling for goals.
But he is certain he is the man who will lead England to Qatar and deserves the chance to prove himself again when it matters most, at a major tournament.
“I know there will be a lot of criticism and calls for change,” Southgate said. “But I come back to the fact that when we had our strongest teams, we had great results.”