LONDON — Just like a month ago, a new England managerial era opened with a win on Saturday. In World Cup qualifying, it’s two wins out of two — with two different managers.
Gareth Southgate will be hoping to last longer than speedily dismissed predecessor Sam Allardyce’s 67 days.
There’s no certainty. Far from it. The 2-0 victory over Malta on Saturday was the first of only four games Southgate knows he could have to transform perceptions of international football’s most scrutinized, yet underwhelming and ridiculed teams.
Every moment patrolling the touchline, reconfiguring his tactics and explaining his decisions in public, the 46-year-old caretaker coach is being judged by the Football Association.
The unassuming victory over Malta was very much in the mold of England’s new, placid manager whose character contrasts sharply with the brash and boastful Allardyce.
The opponents were unambitious but so was England with a performance lacking dynamism and urgency once the lead had been established in the first half by Daniel Sturridge’s header from Jordan Henderson’s cross, and Dele Alli’s strike.
“There’s certainly room for improvement but that’s not a bad place for us to be,” Southgate said.
“In the second half subconsciously there was a feeling the game was won and they were looking forward towards Tuesday (against Slovenia), physically.
The players might be preserving their energy. But Southgate, who played at three tournaments with England, has to seize every moment if he is to lead the team into the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
By next month, after more demanding on-field assignments against Slovenia, Scotland, and Spain, Southgate could be returning to the under-21s team after just 49 days with the senior side if results don’t go his way, or if a more experienced coach is desired.
“I would have liked us to have won by the bigger scoreline,” Southgate said. “I want my teams to attack and I want them to play very good football. At times, some of the flicks and things didn’t come off.
“You are playing against a 5-4-1 that limits the space and maybe we tried some passes which were too difficult at times.”
Southgate was also diplomatic. As interim coach, he can’t afford to lose the dressing room.
“I’m not going to be critical of the players,” he said. “They’ve had to pick up from two changes of managers and a complete change from the way we have worked.”
The first change followed the embarrassment of the European Championship in June when England was eliminated by Iceland and Roy Hodgson’s hopes of a new contract ended.
In came the fierce patriot whose pride at landing the job of a lifetime was not matched by his awareness of the responsibilities of holding the prestigious job. Before Allardyce had even taken charge of his first — and only game — in September against Slovakia, he had fallen for a newspaper sting.
Once video emerged last week of Allardyce appearing to offer advice to fictitious businessmen on how to sidestep an outlawed player transfer practice, and also negotiating a 400,000 pound (about $500,000) public-speaking contract, the FA quickly parted company with him.
It was the latest turbulent chapter for a country which hosts the world’s richest soccer league and has excessively high expectations for a national team whose one and only trophy came in the 1966 World Cup.
And yet the fans still turn out to watch the team, even when modest, unappealing opposition come to Wembley. Southgate’s England managerial debut was watched by more than 80,000 in the north London stadium.
“Given the situation I picked up about 12 days ago, we’ve internally come a hell of a long way,” said Southgate, whose only previous senior management job was with Middlesbrough from 2006 to 2009.