I spent a few days in Marseille last week, around an England rugby team that is low on confidence, plagued by inconsistent selection, hampered by doubts about the discipline and influence of its captain, taking time to respond to a new coach and struggling to establish any sort of identity.
Steve Borthwick’s side reacted magnificently to all the criticism that has been aimed at it by out-thinking and out-playing Argentina in their opening World Cup match at the Stade Velodrome on Saturday night, especially as they had to play 77 minutes of the match with 14 men.
But even though the victory instantly cleared their path to the quarter-finals, a host of problems remain. All their defiance could not hide the fact they are an ordinary side with ball in hand, a side which has fallen far behind tournament favourites France, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa.
That is an England team with problems. That is an England team that still has a lot of work to do to climb away from mediocrity. That is an England team which, at the moment, is a million miles away from realistic dreams of winning the World Cup or ruling the Six Nations again.
And so, in the hour before England kicked off in Marseille, it felt even stranger than normal to see the torrent of criticism of England’s football manager, Gareth Southgate, flooding on to social media…because his team had drawn an away qualifier with Ukraine in Wroclaw in Poland.
Gareth Southgate’s England have been criticised after their weekend draw with Ukraine
But Steve Borthwick’s England rugby side have far more issues than the England football team
Mail Sport columnist Oliver Holt (pictured) believes Southgate’s England should be celebrated
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Ahead of Tuesday’s 150th Anniversary match against Scotland in Glasgow, this is an England team, don’t forget, that has now played five games in its qualifying group for next year’s European Championships, won four and drawn one, scoring 16 goals and conceding two.
This is an England team that beat Italy in its stronghold of Naples in the spring. This is an England team that got to the final of the last European Championships, losing on penalties, and was knocked out of the World Cup last year by a France side many felt were the best team in the tournament.
This is an England team that under-performed for years – actually for decades – under previous managers with bigger reputations but which has finally begun to realise its potential under Southgate and is now over-achieving.
This is a team with a plan, a purpose and a clear identity. This is a team that is already as good as qualified for Euro 2024 in Germany and which will go to the tournament as one of the favourites with an ambition of winning it that is based not on flights of fancy but on having a crop of wonderfully talented players and plentiful evidence of evolution and progress under the manager.
So even if the performance in Wroclaw was a little flat, an away draw against the players of a nation that are playing with far more than a desire to win football matches in their hearts, a draw that took England to the brink of qualification, is hardly a cause for mourning.
The desire to see James Maddison start in a more central position after the impressive impact he has made at the beginning of his career with Spurs this season is shared by most of us. So is the desire to see Phil Foden start more regularly and be allowed to exert more influence.
But Southgate is building a team here, not a collection of Instagram accounts. If would be nice to start Maddison, Foden, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Harry Kane in the same side but it probably wouldn’t win you many football matches, particularly not with England’s defence.
England are well-placed to qualify with something to spare for next year’s Euros
Captain Harry Kane continues to lead from the front, and England have every reason to be confident of going all the way in Germany next year
I love watching Foden, too, but Pep Guardiola only selected him in the starting line-up for just over half of Manchester City’s matches last season.
That looks as if it will change this season and the hope is that it will change for England, too. There is no need to berate Southgate for it, though. Teams evolve fast in a tournament year. It would be a surprise if he does not give Foden more and more prominence the closer the Euros get.
Critics often talk about Southgate as if he is holding England back but almost every piece of evidence suggests that, actually, he is setting England free.
The evidence suggests that we ought not to be fretting about him staying on too long – as Micah Richards did this week – but rather we should be worrying about what happens when he leaves.
Getting the best out of players for their national teams as the power of clubs grows and grows is an increasingly complicated alchemy and Southgate has succeeded where far more celebrated and high-profile managers failed before him.
The last time we witnessed an England manager have the same impact, the last time we saw England players responding to a manager in this way, was when Terry Venables was the boss and we lost him way too early. The FA have been smart enough not to make that mistake with Southgate.
Southgate has always received some criticism for picking Jordan Henderson, and the former Liverpool captain may not be in the side at next year’s Euros anyway
Playing Jordan Henderson in Wroclaw was the latest stick used to beat Southgate but it’s not anything new. Even when he was in his prime for Liverpool, and a Champions League winning captain, Southgate was ridiculed for picking him.
It is probable he will slip out of the starting line-up before the Euros anyway. That will be partly to do with his move to a less competitive league in Saudi Arabia but more to do with the gathering claims of Foden, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Trent Alexander-Arnold who have youth and a stunning array of ball-playing abilities in their favour.
Everything suggests England will go into Euro 24 as second favourites behind France to win it. Everything suggests it will be the country’s best chance of winning a major men’s football competition since 1966.
It might help the process if we could give the manager credit where it’s due along the way instead of looking for problems in places where there are none.
Tennis sold its privacy
It was easy to agree with Judy Murray when she wrote that footage of Aryna Sabalenka smashing her racquet in the privacy of the changing room after her loss to Coco Gauff in the US Open ladies’ singles final at the weekend should not have been shown.
Except, it has now emerged that a Netflix camera crew was in the room filming it all in plain view anyway. Sabalenka knew they were there. She could hardly miss them.
So there was no question of her privacy being violated. That’s the irony with reality shows — the ‘reality’ they show is often not quite what it seems.
Aryna Sabalenka smashed her racquet in the changing room after losing the US Open final, but it has since emerged a Netflix camera crew were filming the whole time
Novak Djokovic’s victory over Daniil Medvedev in the US Open men’s singles final on Sunday night was the latest triumph of the autumn of a quite astonishing career.
Djokovic suffered in the shadow of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for so long but he has outlasted and outstripped them both. He is level now with Margaret Court on 24 singles Grand Slam victories as the most decorated tennis player of all time.
It may be overdue but for his longevity, for his mental strength, his resilience and the brilliance of his play, he deserves all the love and all the plaudits that are coming his way.
Novak Djokovic is now getting the love and plaudits he deserves after winning his 24th grand slam title at the US Open on Sunday
It was an easy choice for the best performance I saw this weekend. George Ford was masterful in England’s backs-to-the-wall victory over Argentina on Saturday.
Sometimes, it’s easy for brains to be lost amid the brawn of the game but Ford’s intelligence — not to mention his brilliant kicking — dominated the match.
England played smarter than they have for a long time with him acting as their general.
Even if it means not recalling his friend, Owen Farrell, coach Steve Borthwick must continue to give Ford the platform to run the show if England are to have a chance of reaching the semi-finals of this tournament or beyond.
George Ford was outstanding against Argentina, delivering the best individual performance of the weekend
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