“I really, really like him.” As I chat with Jack Pitt-Brooke, it becomes clear rather swiftly just which side of the Gareth Southgate debate The Athletic’s England reporter is on.
“I think he’s a really impressive person. He’s smart, has a real sense of responsibility to the job, to the game, and to his players as well. He also fulfils what is maybe the most important role of an England manager, which is to speak really well. Being England manager means doing an awful lot of media work, and everything you say gets deeply analysed. You’re asked to be a sort of national spokesman for football. That’s one of the reasons why people never really warmed to [Fabio] Capello — because he couldn’t do that sort of stuff. And even [Roy] Hodgson, for all his experience, wasn’t quite as good at the media stuff as Southgate is. He manages how famous he is really well. He almost always finds the right words and sets the tone for the whole project.”
Pitt-Brooke believes he has noticed a shift in how England and the England manager have been received by fans in the last few years.
“I think there is less stick from England fans for the players and management of the England team now than there was ten years ago. One of the big changes since Southgate became manager in 2016 has been a strengthening of the relationship between the England team and the public — that is, the people that go to Wembley, that go to away games, and the general TV-watching public. Ten years ago, you’d have players getting booed at Wembley. Ashley Cole used to get bad stick at Wembley; Frank Lampard got it; some of the atmosphere around the end of the Steve McClaren reign was very critical.”
Yet critical is precisely what some Three Lions fans were even when Southgate led England to a World Cup semi-final in Russia in 2018. Had England performed well, or had they simply been beneficiaries of an irresistibly easy draw in the knockout rounds?
“I think a bit of both, really. England were pretty good. They were better than England teams have been at tournaments since Euro 2004. They did get a pretty generous draw, that’s true — they didn’t have to beat a top team at any point. Equally, the way that they came through games was impressive — that last-minute win against Tunisia; the way they held it together against Colombia; they dispatched Sweden pretty confidently. They got a generous side of the draw, and if the group stages had gone differently, who knows if they would have got knocked out earlier? But that happens in tournaments! Tournaments are not really about establishing who the best team is.
“There are legitimate criticisms to be made of England’s performances at that World Cup. They didn’t create very much in open play, and ultimately, they were quite reliant from Harry Kane. But I wouldn’t use that as a stick to beat Southgate with. The overall level of performance was pretty good. The team showed qualities of spirit and bravery and adventure, which we’d wanted to see from an England team for a while.
“Now, there is much more of a positive vibe. England’s last home game [in front of a crowd] was November of last year, but I can’t remember the last time there was an England home game where there wasn’t a positive atmosphere.”
And across two international breaks behind closed doors that positive atmosphere has — for the most part — continued. However, England took just a single point from home and away ties with Denmark in the Nations League. That’s a far cry from the England we were getting used to watching in the Euro 2020 qualifiers. There was a feeling then that England really were progressing. Has that halted in the past two months — regressed, even?
“The big thing in the last few games has been going to this 3-4-3 system, which is similar to — but not exactly the same as — the 3-5-2 we used at the World Cup. Is it a step in the right direction? I don’t know. I didn’t watch the last two games and think: ‘England are better than they were a year ago when they were playing 4-3-3.’
“Southgate knows that the 4-3-3 is a bit too open and exposed. Look at the draw for the Euros, if England win their group — which I think they will do — they’ll get the second-placed team from the group of death in the Last 16. That’s Portugal, Germany or France. If England are playing with one sitting midfielder [in front of two centre-backs], you do think: ‘What if [Kylian] Mbappé gets going?’ France could sit back, knock a ball over the top to Mbappé, and [Harry] Maguire would get sent off after five minutes. I completely understand why Southgate would think we need a bit more security and pace into the backline, and you do that by playing a back-three with Kyle Walker.
“It might well be that if we’re going to play France or Germany, that back-three is the right approach. But the problem is, by adding Walker into the team you have to take out a player from the front six. You’re going to create less. The 4-3-3 has been really good for attacking football. It’s worked really well, and it does score you a lot of goals. Southgate shouldn’t move completely away from that way of playing because it was so successful.
“If you look at our group, England have got a qualifier [either Scotland or Serbia], Croatia who are now very old, and the Czech Republic. I wouldn’t want to see England go into all those games with a 3-4-3. There are times when it’s appropriate — the knockout rounds — but if they keep with the 3-4-3, they’re just not going to create enough chances. You’re compromising a strength — the attacking players — to try and paper over a weakness — the defence. It just doesn’t make sense, when England have so many good attackers, to limit yourself to just Kane and two others. They need that extra attacking player in there.
“The goals England conceded in that game against Holland in Guimarães were very much from defensive mistakes. But the fact is, England don’t have many very good centre-backs. Maguire’s got his issues; [Eric] Dier’s only just moved back to centre-back again; [John] Stones is not in the [Manchester] City team. I’m a huge fan of [Joe] Gomez, but he’s not looked brilliant recently; I’m not sure Tyrone Mings is international class; [Conor] Coady has got three caps. So, England have got a lot of centre-backs, but not top-class ones.”
Maguire and Walker are two of three England players to have been sent off in the last five matches. Only 15 reds in the team’s previous 148 years of history show just how significant the recent record is. Off the pitch, players have hardly been better behaved in recent weeks.
“I’d definitely draw a line between Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire getting two silly yellow cards and players behaving badly in their private lives. I don’t think the players behave worse than normal players do. What [Phil] Foden and [Mason] Greenwood was stupid, just like the famous Tammy Abraham birthday party. Lots of players do this sort of thing. There’s a bit of an atmosphere of sanctimony around it all. Southgate made a point the other day. People are always keen to associate bad behaviour with England duty [even when the indiscretions have occurred while the players are with their clubs], and this makes Southgate’s job a lot harder because he has to talk about it all the time. We are generally keen to make a bigger deal out of the bad behaviour of England players just because it’s England.”
One thing is for sure, going down to ten men — or nine as it was, albeit after full-time, against Denmark — is almost always bound to be a defining factor if it happens in the latter stages of a major tournament. Echoes of David Beckham at France 98 and Wayne Rooney against Portugal in 2006 still resonate. With the European Championships around the corner, England must be mindful of the need to stay disciplined on the pitch. But they also need to be playing well and winning football matches.
“I don’t think England fans should get their hopes up about winning it,” Pitt-Brooke admits honestly. “A year or two ago, I might have said England would win the Euros. Now I’m probably not so sure.
“The chances of 90,000 people at Wembley next June and July — it’s not going to happen. England will lose out on that factor. The England team is not as solid as I thought it would be at this point. A lot of the individuals are still really good: Sterling, Kane, but beyond that? None of our centre-backs have improved in the last two seasons.
“All in all, I don’t feel that England are much better than they were two years ago. I don’t think they’re better than when they beat Spain 3-2 in Seville. That means if they played France, Germany or Portugal, I think they’d probably lose. I wouldn’t get too excited about the Euros in that sense. It’ll be fun, but, speaking honestly, I’m not optimistic about England’s chances of winning it.”
Gareth Southgate comes back into focus.
“The other side of the question is how good he is as a manager — as a coach of this team. And the answer to that is that I don’t really know. Judging management in international football is really hard. Southgate gets the players, what, four or five times a year for ten days at a time. His capacity to coach them outside those spells is zero, and even during an international break there’s always media and travel. It’s not like he can teach them to play a new way. That’s why the standard of international football is different to club football. No international team is going to show up and play like Bayern Munich or Liverpool.
“If you were to just look at results, you’d say the results have been pretty good — semi-final of the World Cup, semi-final of the Nations League, easy qualification to the Euros, just beat Belgium. Of course, the counterpoint to that is: how many times have they really won convincingly? It’s not to say that I think he’s done an incredible job, because I would say that. I also wouldn’t say he’s done a bad job because I think it’s pretty clear that he hasn’t.
“You could say, ‘What if Carlos Bacca’s penalty hadn’t been saved by [Jordan] Pickford at the World Cup?’ England would have gone out. On the other hand, you could say, ‘What if Harry Kane had squared to [Raheem] Sterling in the semi-final?’ England would have got to the final. You just don’t have the dataset that you do for analysing a Premier League manager.
“I have seen a lot of criticism from fans on social media in the last week or so. I don’t know how representative that is. I would say the media are still onside with Southgate. But I don’t think that will last forever. It never does with any manager. But ultimately it will be decided by results. People generally liked Hodgson before Euro 2016, and then everyone turned on him.”
Header Photo: Jack Pitt-Brooke. All Other Photos: Getty Images