The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be Gareth Southgate’s last tournament as England manager. Here’s why…
by Dom Smith
Is Gareth Southgate under pressure? Is he feeling the pressure? Is he going to be sacked if England crash out in Qatar? These have all been hot topics over the past few days and weeks, and the answer is the same for each. No.
England have been desperately disappointing since cruising through their World Cup qualifying group unbeaten last autumn. They’ve disillusioned a previously compelled fanbase.
They were poor against Switzerland in March, an impatient and angsty Wembley given the wet paper towel treatment as a Harry Kane penalty lugged England to victory. It papered over the cracks of a horrid, stodgy display.
Against Ivory Coast a few days later, their African opponents were down to ten men after 40 minutes and offered England very limited opportunity to learn anything at all about themselves. Two wins, though. At least the results were still there, because England’s form was about to fall off a cliff.Embed from Getty Images
They’ve since drawn three and lost three in a disastrous Nations League campaign in which they were relegated three days before Scotland were promoted to replace them. A damning blot on Southgate’s record as England manager. Yes, this campaign was used as World Cup preparation rather than as a competition in its own right, but there were such slim odds of England dropping down to League B that he and his players deserve criticism for that.
Against Hungary at Molineux in June, there was a full-blooded sense of mutiny among England fans for the first time in the Southgate era. “F*CK OFF SOUTHGATE, YOU NEGATIVE B*STARD”, shrieked one restless fan stood a metre behind me as he left for the exit before the 80th minute. Southgate labelled it “a chastening night”, and he wasn’t wrong. England’s heaviest home defeat since before the start of the great depression. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
This month was about returning to winning ways. England played pretty poorly in Milan as they lost to Italy, and were better but still mistake-stricken in Monday’s colourful 3–3 draw with Germany. But still no win.
So England’s longest winless run under Southgate follows them into the World Cup like some deathly shadow. An improved attacking performance against the Germans, yes, but familiar defensive woes. And the attacking zing and zest only kicked in once they went two down.Embed from Getty Images
England have slumped. They’ve regressed. Southgate admitted his players asked for a players-only meeting over the weekend, to discuss in private how to regroup and respond positively to their woeful form. Though Germany dominated possession, there was certainly evidence of that at Wembley. They had 13 shots through the match, a high tally given the calibre of the opposition.
But still they didn’t win and still there are calls for Southgate’s sacking — either immediately, or immediately after the World Cup come what may.
Yet lost in amongst the many hundreds of words Southgate has said to the media in the past few days was an answer in which the England manager of six years gave a fascinating insight into his mindset. An insight into how he contextualises his team’s results in recent months.
Asked whether criticism hurts him and causes self-doubt, Southgate answered: “Look, I’m the manager and the results haven’t been at the level that we want and that we require. Of course, with the national team that noise is going to be even louder and more widespread, and I totally understand that. I’m not hiding from that.
“If we keep the standards high and the performances come then eventually the results turn. I don’t think it’s ever been any different in football.Embed from Getty Images
“I’m fortunate that I’m now sadly in my 50s. I’ve been in football 30 years. In one guise or other, I’ve been to 12 tournaments. So, I’ve seen pretty much everything. I’ve seen the cycle of war with the media, I’ve seen absolute love-in. We’re somewhere in middle of that — or maybe not quite in the middle. That’s fascinating to observe, from my side, and it’s a life experience that I knew at some point would probably come with this job. I have to accept that.
“I didn’t ever get too carried away by what happened before, and I’m not too down about what’s happening now. I want to put it right. I want the team to win, play well, and the fans to be happy — that’s what I took the job.”
Southgate is balanced. He understands and accepts criticism. He even accepts vilification. He’s been uncompromising. He’s not macho, nor hugely charismatic, but he’s had the strength of his convictions to stick to how he and his coaching staff believe England should set up. If he were prone to compromise and bowed to public pressure, Trent Alexander-Arnold would be a seasoned England starter by now and Harry Maguire would be totally out of the picture. With England winless in six, still he keeps faith with his fervently trusted Plan A.
And that’s part of the reason why Southgate will not be England manager come Euro 2024. If it goes wrong, he will be culpable. Qatar will be his final tournament. However you imagine the World Cup going, it will be Southgate’s last dance as national team head coach.
If England win the tournament — which looks exceedingly unlikely — then he will walk. It would be the natural progression after a semi-final and a final, and it would be the crowning moment of a truly remarkable reign over the most underachieving country in international football. He would be knighted, forever adored, and England would play three-at-the-back until at least 2040.Embed from Getty Images
If they come close again but fail again at the business end of the tournament, he will also surely walk. Southgate, we must remember, is a patriotic England fan as well as England manager. He grew up in Crawley preferring international football to the club game and has continued to feel more strongly about England throughout his life. He’d be daft to put himself through the emotional torture of a fourth major tournament at the helm in that case. Some would be glad to see the back of him, some would thank him for changing the England narrative, and off to six months of peace and nothingness he would shuffle.
If the World Cup were a disaster — group-stage and out, for example — would The FA sack him? I doubt it. They might strongly advise him to leave, but they would allow him to cash in his credit in the bank from two excellent tournaments and spare him the humiliation of a public culling in broad daylight. In any case, The FA signed away much of their power over Southgate when they bizarrely extended his contract until after Euro 2024 on the back of last summer’s edition. No, he would walk — partly to accept many England fans’ inevitable loathing of him, and partly because of his deep sense of integrity. Not all stories have happy endings. The impossible job rarely does.
In what situation would he head back to his home in Harrogate for Christmas to process the World Cup campaign and return in the new year to oversee a fourth tournament cycle?
Perhaps he would stay on for part of the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign while The FA sweats and panics in its search for his replacement. Or perhaps he wouldn’t be willing to even do that. If Monday night was Gareth Southgate’s Wembley farewell, he already knew it was.