Gareth Southgate has reminded fans there is no ‘magic wand’ to turn his England journeymen into world-beaters.
For the first time in his eight-game tenure as interim and permanent manager, Southgate seemed rattled by the 3-2 loss away to France.
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s loss here in Paris, the Three Lions’ boss scrambled for the odd positive but, reflecting further, it was obvious he was extremely unhappy with, and concerned by, how ten-man France gave his team the runaround.
Southgate now also has to face up to the first bout of serious scrutiny during his short career as a senior international manager.
Of his eight matches in charge, only three have been won and those victories came against teams ranked 182nd, 61st and 104th in the world.
With only successes against Malta, Scotland and Lithuania on his record, it has hardly been a flying start for Southgate, and this latest disappointing performance appeared to unsettle him most.
“I am afraid there is no magic wand,” he declared.
“We’ve got some young players coming through that have got really good potential and can be exciting, but there is no shortcut. That’s the reality of where we are as a country.”
While there may have been mitigating factors for England’s ineptitude after Raphael Varane had been dismissed, Southgate did not reach for them.
“You can’t sugarcoat what happened in those final 30 minutes,” he said. “That was the opportunity for us to dominate the ball and really make them work and we didn’t.
“I want the players to feel disappointed because they’ve got to recognise moments when you do have an opportunity to get a really good result.”
After a home draw with Spain and defeats in Germany and France, Southgate is happy to carry on facing high-quality opposition in friendlies ahead of next summer’s World Cup finals — and Germany are pencilled in for a November visit to Wembley.
He admits, however, that comparisons invited by games such as the one at the Stade de France only underline the gap between England and the major nations.
“One of the reasons for playing Germany, Spain and France is you have to get everything spot on to get a result,” he said. “We’ve been competitive in all three [of those] games for long periods of time, but I think we’ve had to play at our absolute limit to stay in all three of the matches.
“I know where we are as a team and the hard work that lies ahead to try and bridge the gap between us and the three teams we’re speaking about.”
The immediate work for Southgate — who will go out to the Under-21 European Championship starting later this week and also take in the Confederations Cup ramp-up event for the World Cup — will be to confirm qualification for Russia 2018 in the four remaining group games.
Next up is a trip to played-six, lost-six Malta on September 1, followed by home games against Slovakia and Slovenia before finishing with a trip to Lithuania.
A place in the finals should still be pretty much of a formality, but Southgate knows that is when the difficulties usually start.
When it was put to him that England’s flimsiness against France was hardly unfamiliar, he said: “Well, it’s a big challenge then, isn’t it?”
It certainly is, but maybe even Southgate did not realise it was this big.