by Dom Smith
They say once a manager starts harking back to his past successes, it’s only a matter of time before he’s out of a job. Gareth Southgate started to do just that this month as he came under intense pressure for the first time in his six-year reign. England certainly didn’t make the most of the June sun, bookending decent draws against an experimental Italy and against Germany in Munich with two humbling defeats to Hungary. Under pressure he felt, because under pressure he was.
England’s national team have been fulfilling fixtures since 1872. And they’ve had a nominated manager since 1946, when Walter Winterbottom became the first. Never before has one enjoyed a honeymoon period anywhere near as long and as giddy as Southgate. Only this month did murmurs that he’s too defensive — and suggestions that his tournament runs were helped by kind draws — teeter over into anything like the majority view.
For the first time during Southgate’s tenure, it is unclear whether he has the support of most of the England supporter base. On the one hand, that seems harsh given his only major tournament campaigns have seen him reach the 2018 World Cup semi-final and then the Euros final in 2021.Embed from Getty Images
Yet perhaps six years has proved long enough for Southgate to have found a myriad of different ways to irritate different folk — each single reason enough to turn another fan against him. While Leicester fans might be Southgate Out because of his reluctance to use James Maddison, Manchester City fans might be Southgate Out because he’s yet to find a reliable role for Phil Foden. Tactical experts may lambast him for his ‘overly conservative’ 3-4-3 system, whereas a different type of conservative (the political sort) might want rid of Southgate because of his progressive worldview. Six years were always going to provide a wealth of ammunition to throw at the 51-year-old.
So was the 4–0 home defeat to Hungary at Molineux — England’s biggest home defeat for 94 years…
There is no doubt that the football gods have been kind on Southgate during his time as England manager thus far. His route into the job came courtesy of the easiest newspaper sting in sporting history. Sam Allardyce will be regretting that single glass of wine as he casts his eye over England’s talent pool now.
In the job, Southgate did well enough (two wins, two draws) as interim to get the job permanently. He then negotiated World Cup 2018 qualifying with little faff but little inspiration, before landing Belgium in the group-stage, along with two beatable sides in Tunisia and debutants Panama. Five goals in two games from Harry Kane took England through with a game to spare, before Southgate first stamped his mark on England history for something other than his limp penalty against Germany at Euro 96.Embed from Getty Images
Only because of a 93rd-minute Colombia equaliser did England need to battle their nerves as well as their own history from the spot in the round of 16. Southgate had been convinced that penalties could, would and should be practiced. They were, and England duly prevailed. The monkey off his back finally. A Burnley-like Sweden was as easy a World Cup quarter-final opponent as Southgate could possibly have asked for. Safely navigated.
Their run to the Euro final was harder, but again favourable. A declining Croatia, neighbours Scotland, the Czech Republic, Joachim Löw’s sinking Germany and then in the quarters, a very limited Ukraine, thrashed comprehensively 4–0. Kasper Hjulmand’s Denmark are better than the nation’s football pedigree wants you to believe, but they too were kind opponents for a final-four meeting at the Euros. England crept past them.
But against Croatia in the semi-final in Moscow, and against Italy at Wembley last summer, England were dogged by tournament trends that have weighed them down for much longer than Southgate has been around. Against both, England started at scintillating pace. They always do. In big games, Bobby Robson’s England always started the better side, the same under Terry Venables when Southgate was a player, and under Sven-Göran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson too.
It’s sustaining the intensity of will that’s the problem. Especially when you go a goal ahead and catch a premature glimpse of the dizzying heights that might follow. England scored five minutes into their Croatia semi, and two minutes into their meeting with Roberto Mancini’s Italians.Embed from Getty Images
England had a lead to hold on to, but Southgate’s job was to fight his young players’ inclinations to keep edging back. Preservation football cannot be sustained for 118 minutes of a 120-minute match. Indeed, it wasn’t. Just as Croatia knocked England out of Russia 2018 by winning the midfield battle as the night grew older, so too did Italy at Wembley. By the end of the night, as the rain poured, England mourned.
Southgate was right to point out this month that it has been during the Nations League campaigns when his side have struggled — and that not being at full strength has impacted this. After finishing third in the inaugural edition in 2019, England finished third in their group of four in 2020, finishing below Belgium and Denmark and above only Iceland, because of failure to beat the Danes away and defeat to them at home.
This time round, things could go even worse. Covid and a winter World Cup have both impacted the football calendar so much that after this most arduous and elongated of seasons, national teams had to play four of their six Nations League group games. England had no left-back because of injury, allowed Jordan Henderson a rest, and could only call on Phil Foden as a substitute in their disastrous final game because he caught Covid at a terrible time.
France averaged eight changes for each game, and sit bottom of their group after two draws and two defeats. England, with lots of changes too, picked up the same set of results. They too are bottom, peering up at France, Germany and their bogey team the Hungarians.
Southgate has shown multiple times during his reign that the fanciful want for all his attacking players to be picked at once just doesn’t work. England were at their best (but never their very best) this month when they used a balanced 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1 system. Late in games, chasing a scoreline, and with more attackers on than cautious Southgate would ever start a game with, England looked their shakiest.Embed from Getty Images
He started two creative No 8s against Hungary in a World Cup qualifier in October last year — and England were awful. Everyone was in each other’s way, and he needed defender John Stones to pop up at the back post to steal a point. It was the first time England had failed to win a home qualifier since Hodgson’s first back in 2012.
On that score, Southgate has been proven right. His team were the highest scorers in Europe in the calendar years of both 2019 and 2021. San Marino played their crucial part in that, of course, but so did England. 2019 became their most potent year in history when they smashed in 38. 2021 saw that tally obliterated. 52 goals: unbelievably impressive for an international team. Arsenal scored just one more, in all competitions, all year.
Southgate must be careful. Continued faith in the key players who took him to the semi-final and final — Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford — is understandable. And it’s sensible to draw on their tournament experience. But only to a point.
As The Guardian’s Barney Ronay was right to point out after England’s opening day loss in Budapest this month, the England manager must be careful not to allow his tenure to mirror Löw’s time in charge of Germany. Failure to blood a replacement generation would be costly — and the effects would be felt long after Southgate has handed in his key at St George’s Park. Does the England manager have a wealth of options at centre-back or up front? No. But it is his job to keep things fresh. Playing Stones and Maguire so much in incidental internationals pays off little for England’s future. The same is true for the team’s far-and-away best player: Kane. Freshen things up a little more, find a deputy striker and hand him meaningful game-time.
Oh, and also win, please. And play young players. And try not to pick the wrong players. Or the wrong formation. And make sure it’s not just a final this time, yeah? We’d like to actually win the thing.
Clearly it’s not an easy job. It’s not an easy job to keep all parties happy — especially with the added requirement of an England manager to be a voice for the nation in a way not dissimilar to a spokesperson or a senior politician. Southgate has to be all things to all people, all while picking up results.
With this in mind, he deserves to be lauded. Yes, there have been favourable draws in tournaments. Yes, there is a pretty impressive generation of players — though the lack of depth highlighted this month should go some way to busting the nonsensical myth that this is one of England’s golden generations. It’s not. It’s a Harry Kane or a Declan Rice injury away from being as good and as bad as the most bog-standard of England teams.Embed from Getty Images
Southgate showed at Euro 2020 that he knows how international football works. He went for just-about-one-nils, rather than taking unnecessary risks simply to score a few more goals than England actually ‘needed’. He is a mature thinker, a superb speaker, and a good man. He is also a good man-manager, just ask his players.
Perhaps he is no Pep Guardiola, the coaching genius dialled in to the in-game tactical nuances and the right sub to make at the right time. Scrap the ‘perhaps’. He definitely isn’t that. He and we know his limitations.
But he’s the best England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey — the guy who won England the World Cup in 1966. He’s also England manager 145 days before the World Cup starts. That should be as good a reason as any for why it would be ludicrous to replace him.
Southgate is not infallible and shouldn’t be seen as infallible. But he has credit in the bank. He is cashing it in now, as he prepares to lead England’s charge into the Qatari desert. And he’s earned that right.