Gareth Southgate: England interim manager 'still has much to prove'
Gareth Southgate reached the midway point in his four-game tenure as England manager on a torrid night in Slovenia - still searching for the compelling evidence that will land him the full-time job.
The 46-year-old walked into a team and a Football Association in turmoil following the hasty departure of predecessor Sam Allardyce after just 67 days, one game and conduct regarded as unbecoming for his position.
Southgate was never going to apply a quick fix, and how it showed as England leaned heavily on the brilliance of goalkeeper Joe Hart and large slices of luck to scrape a 0-0 draw in the World Cup 2018 qualifier in Ljubljana.
How does Southgate stand after Slovenia?
The FA will not consider the next step in its succession plan until after England's next qualifier against Scotland at Wembley on 11 November and the home friendly against Spain four days later.
This gives Southgate the opportunity to get the big result he needs so momentum can gather in his favour after two colourless, largely disappointing displays in the 2-0 home win over Malta and the draw in Slovenia.
Southgate - highly regarded within the FA for his work with England Under-21s - has looked and sounded the part. If the FA was searching for someone to restore dignity after the turbulence surrounding Allardyce's departure, he is the perfect fit.
The former England defender has been impressive in all aspects off the pitch since taking interim charge.
He has handled himself in the calm, assured manner for which he is known. He took the ruthless decision to drop captain Wayne Rooney, a player he figured alongside for England and someone he spoke glowingly about before leaving him on the sidelines in Slovenia.
And he was also impressive as he sat alongside Rooney in Ljubljana after making that landmark decision the night before the game, dealing with the inevitable inquest with a mixture of sensitivity and authority.
In this part of the equation he secures full marks - where work still needs to be done is in the more important area of performances and results.
The Malta victory was job done, albeit in an attritional manner against a team intent on avoiding a thrashing, while Slovenia was more a case of 'welcome to the real world' as England struggled to find any rhythm or purpose against a team ranked 67th in the world alongside Burkina Faso.
Southgate - who has made it clear he wants the job full-time, after suggesting in September he was not ready - joked he was heading off for a long sleep.
But he will soon be looking ahead to these next two games - and the increasing likelihood that the meeting with Scotland, on the skids after a 3-0 loss in Slovakia, will be pivotal to his chances of succeeding Allardyce permanently.
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Did Southgate inherit a mess?
One phrase stuck out a mile in Southgate's post-match analysis, as he said he has "inherited a mess".
Did he? Should England fans actually expect no more than they have seen in two performances lacking in spark and inspiration against Malta and Slovenia?
Southgate is correct to suggest he was parachuted into turmoil after Allardyce's hasty departure for non-footballing misdemeanours. The whole matter hit the FA like a thunderbolt, although it deserves credit for dealing with it promptly and decisively.
And no-one can seriously suggest he took over an England side in full bloom after the humiliation and shock of the exit at the hands of minnows Iceland in the last 16 of Euro 2016, a result that was a national embarrassment and prompted the instant resignation of manager Roy Hodgson.
The brave new era under Allardyce was hardly ushered in with a blaze of glory either as England only defeated 10-man Slovakia with a 95th-minute goal from Adam Lallana.
There has to be a realism about what Southgate has walked into. He is in charge of a side that was made grimly aware of its place in the world order in France - and he played no part in that.
Southgate did, however, have two eminently winnable matches to start with and, while four points keeps them top of Group F, the draw in Slovenia was the first qualifier of any kind England have not won in three years, halting a run of 14 successive victories.
He also has a squad that has talent, certainly enough to be producing better than what was on offer on Tuesday.
So yes, to a degree Southgate is correct to suggest he inherited a mess - but equally England have also been sorely lacking in fresh inspiration.
Should Southgate still be favourite for England job?
Southgate has plenty of factors in his favour - not least a shortage of alternative candidates beating a path to the FA's door.
He is the man in possession, the man with the chance to produce the results to make the job his. He will, though, have to produce better than has been seen so far and will need to nail down the second part of this four-game trial run against Scotland and Spain.
The FA will make their next move then, which again emphasises the importance of the forthcoming games for Southgate.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger would surely be high on any FA wish list but his future is, as yet, imponderable.
He is out of contract with the Gunners at the end of the season but a new contract is on the table at Emirates Stadium and there is no guarantee a long game of patience by the FA will be rewarded.
Steve Bruce was interviewed in the summer but he is the new Aston Villa manager, which leaves Bournemouth's Eddie Howe as the other main contender.
The England job is still Southgate's to lose - but he needs at least one big result to score the win.
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What are the key areas for improvement?
England's old problems were in evidence again in Slovenia. Possession was conceded carelessly, almost fatally in the case of Eric Dier and fellow midfielder Jordan Henderson when they played blind backpasses to Josip Ilicic.
Too often the back and front of the team seemed unrelated to each other, England were short of ideas and there was a grim echo of the Euros and Iceland in both halves when they were gripped by a sense of panic under pressure.
It was only thanks to the magnificent Joe Hart that they escaped, and there was little of the bravery that was Southgate's mantra for this latest England incarnation.
Winger Theo Walcott, such an enigma, was disappointing once more and substituted, while striker Daniel Sturridge also went into his shell and it was no surprise when he was taken off.
Southgate must now seriously study how he can get the fearlessness and pace of Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford into the team and it will be intriguing to see how he answers the Rooney question when it comes around again against Scotland.
He has to be given time - two games is a managerial career in its infancy - and it is unfair to expect Southgate to start providing every answer in such a short space of time.
And England's positives?
England drew a game they could easily have lost. They stay undefeated and top of their group with a respectable haul of seven points from their first three games, with a remaining programme that hardly looks taxing.
On the pitch, goalkeeper Hart looked more like the man who was world-class for so long, not the agitated, nervous figure who made such high-profile errors against Wales and Iceland at Euro 2016.
Hart looked much calmer, moving around his team-mates near the halfway line and offering advice during a break in second-half play - and advancing out of goal to keep Jesse Lingard out of trouble in the dying seconds.
And in John Stones, Southgate has a rapidly maturing central defender he can start to build England around.
For perspective, England are doing just as well as France and Sweden in their group and better than the Netherlands and Euro 2016 winners Portugal. Spain also have seven points from their opening three games.
Small crumbs of comfort those - but Southgate will take them after a trying 90 minutes in Ljubljana.
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