There was a moment as he spoke to the media when Gareth Southgate said something that rang true in more ways than he meant. Asked why he has signed a contract extension until December 2024 — and typically philosophical — the England manager said he felt people sometimes spend too long preparing for the future and not nearly long enough living in the present. That was an argument for him to stay onboard the England fun bus.
It was also a reason why The FA were right to stick with him. Too long staring into the distance can blur your ability to appreciate what’s right in front of you. England’s current manager is their second-most-successful of all time on the pitch. Off the pitch and in the more diplomatic aspects of the job, he is surely unrivalled.
If England do not win the World Cup in Qatar, and if they do not win the Euros in 2024 — even if they reach both finals — Southgate will be criticised. There have been moments in key games during his tenure when the Three Lions appeared to have scored too early. Fifth-minute lead against Croatia in 2018: defeat. First-half lead against the Netherlands in 2019: defeat. Second-minute lead against Italy in 2021: defeat. Southgate’s tactics at pendulum moments in all those matches can be justly critiqued.Embed from Getty Images
Ultimately, The FA have had to decide the following. Has Southgate shown himself to be (a) a manager able to take England from tournament hopefuls to tournament contenders; or (b) the wrong man to get England over the line and lift silverware? There are cases for both, but point (a) seems stronger. Did England simply need to ‘get over the line’ under Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello and others? No, there were plenty more steps they needed to reach first. Looking into the distance only serves a purpose when searching further afield is necessary. It surely isn’t necessary for the moment.
A large proportion of supporters are fed up of Southgate now. But, to be fair, five years is more than enough time for him to have upset hordes of fans for a variety of different micro-reasons. Those yet to feel let down would argue what makes Southgate so right for England is his passion for the country and for the national team. “England’s been a massive part of my life,” he began when addressing the media on Monday. “Supporter, player, U21 manager, and now manager.”
Politically, these are divisive times. It’s extraordinary to recount just how many different societal issues Southgate and his team have been asked about in recent years. But he has been a calm, erudite, uniting figure. That shouldn’t be required of a football manager. It wouldn’t matter as much in the club game. But there is less space for egotism in international football. An abrupt slip-of-the-tongue in the Premier League gets you an inconsequential fine. A slip-of-the-tongue in international football could get a lot nastier. Where there are countries, there is politics. In terms of communication, Southgate is a natural.Embed from Getty Images
Southgate’s first five years in the job can be seen to represent two victories in one. Firstly, his reflective, open-minded nature has allowed him to scrupulously analyse what was holding back England teams in the past in terms of mindset and approach. Only after a diagnosis can one be sure of the appropriate remedy. It turned out these were quite simple spots, if not all easy fixes. Fear of the media, fear of failure, boredom at England camps, club cliques, a lacking pathway from England youth to England seniors. These were all problems. They have all subsided.
But all the while, results have been at a consistently elite level. England have the best attacking record in Europe, the best defensive record in Europe, and broke a number of records in the calendar year of 2021. It’s not easy for a national team to break its own records when it’s been playing for 149 years.
Supporters are interested in England again, players don’t seem to see autumn international breaks as pointless inconveniences, and results on the pitch have been a massive help to both of those upwards trends. And so it would be easy to simply ask Southgate for more of the same. Yet thanks to the heights he has taken England to already, that will no longer do. Just as he expects ever-more from himself and his team, so does everyone else.Embed from Getty Images
He has shown he has tactical nous. 3-5-2 was the correct approach in Russia, where England’s squad was pretty limited. That felt like a success of synergy, where England the unit was better than England the individuals. Since then, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 have been interchanged aptly in order to hurt certain teams offensively in certain ways, but also to limit each opponents’ threat to England. Assertions that he doesn’t know what he is doing are false.
The next step for Southgate must therefore be to improve his in-game decision-making. This is where he has so far come up short. The team’s weaknesses aren’t exposed when San Marino or Andorra are in town, but for England to sit on what they had against Italy from the 39th minute onwards was quite naïve. They only invited pressure — and the wondrous Federico Chiesa jumped at the opportunity to provide it.Embed from Getty Images
Perhaps the best compliment The FA can pay to Southgate is yet to come. Perhaps it isn’t the reported £5 million plus bonuses that he’ll earn annually with this new deal. Maybe the best compliment they can pay him is that his successor is likely to be of the same mould. A Southgate-that-isn’t-Southgate, if you like.
Talking about his 68 matches in the dugout so far, Southgate said: “Every one of those is a national event.” If the 10-0 hammering of San Marino last week was a national event, it certainly wasn’t advertised well. But it’s good that Southgate feels that way. His tireless work to ensure he instils a catalytic environment for players, plus all his side’s handsome wins along the way — those things matter. But it’s important that Southgate ultimately feels passionate about his role. No one is better suited to this job.