by Dom Smith
The FA want Gareth Southgate to continue in his role beyond the World Cup regardless of the result against France. And so they should. It would be mad if they didn’t.
Southgate has long been expected to quietly walk away from the England job after this World Cup. He is contracted until after Euro 2024, but Southgate has now been in the role for over six years and has said before that he does have ambitions to return to club management one day.
If England win the World Cup in Qatar, it would mark the natural end to a thoroughly ground-breaking tenure. If England lose to France or indeed beat them but fail to win the tournament, it would be another successful tournament run for Southgate’s England. The England manager would likely resign. Tournament runs are emotionally taxing on managers as patriotic and empathic as Southgate. He would probably decide he can’t put himself through such an experience for a fourth time.
The perplexing thing is that despite how impressively England have waltzed through the tournament so far — scoring more goals than any other side, keeping clean sheets in all but one game, reaching the quarter-finals unbeaten — still more England fans want Southgate sacked than don’t. Just think about that for a second.Embed from Getty Images
Under Southgate, England have won six knockout matches in six years. And considering his first tournament came two years into his tenure, it’s more accurate to say they’ve won those six knockout games in just four years. The 19 men who sat in Southgate’s cursed throne before him won just nine knockout matches. So Southgate is responsible for 40 percent of England’s knockout wins. That still doesn’t hold as much weight as it should in the minds of many.
In England’s group matches during Southgate’s three tournaments, they have also shown control and dominance never previously shown by any England team — particularly by a team for three tournaments in a row. In nine group games since and including Russia 2018, Southgate’s England have scored 19 goals, conceded just five, keeping five clean sheets, and losing just once — in a dead-rubber against Belgium.
In 2018, he became the first manager to lead England to a major tournament semi-final in 22 years. In 2021, he led England to a major final for the first time in 55 years. Now he hopes to become the first manager ever to take England to at least the semi-finals in three consecutive tournaments.
Southgate’s most fervent critics still keenly mention that England’s runs to the 2018 semi-final, 2021 final, and quarter-final this year have seen them beat no genuinely elite teams. The same people exaggerate the extent to which Germany at Euro 2020 were not a threat. They were. So were Kasper Hjulmand’s Denmark in the semi-final. England extinguished them both.
It’s true that England have not knocked out a truly world-class team under Southgate. That is the unavoidable reality that even his most ardent supporters must accept. Yet what can Southgate do about how the tournament knockout stages fall? He can’t exactly call Brazil or Argentina in to face his side in order to quieten those saying he’s been lucky. You can only play who’s in front of you. People keep saying it because it’s true.Embed from Getty Images
He is dammed if England come through those games unscathed and damned if they don’t. But perhaps he should have seen this coming. His is the impossible job.
The ex-Middlesborough manager has also made England a much more efficient side in qualifiers. Yes, England nearly always qualified for tournaments at a canter even before he took the reins, but under the 52-year-old they have gone from regular to rampant qualifiers, routinely drubbing sides that aren’t used to being on the end of such thrashings. In their Euro 2020 qualifying group, Southgate’s well-oiled team inflicted the heaviest-ever defeats on all but one of the nations they faced. In the calendar year of 2019, they scored 38 goals: the most by any England team ever. After negotiating the Covid-ridden year of 2020, have a guess how many goals they notched in 2021.
It was 52.
Southgate’s England have lapped up records almost every time they’ve taken to the pitch, yet perhaps his most valuable impact as manager has been in a less tangible way. When Southgate went for his interview to become interim manager in 2016, he arrived with a tome-like dossier of how he felt England could be successful at international level once more.
He came in with a plan. And it wasn’t just a plan for how England could tactically improve. He also had a plan for how a lot of the outside distractions and constraints could be changed in order to remove the weight that hangs heavy on those who wear the hallowed white shirt.
Southgate saw that providing the press more access to players would bring the press onside, creating a generally more positive body of coverage of the England team and showing the players that the media are not monsters but merely people looking for stories and hoping, like the players themselves, that England go all the way.Embed from Getty Images
And the England camp now resembles a high-achieving club atmosphere rather than a national team, with a small pool of players which is big enough to have a competitive edge whereby poor form won’t get you in, but small enough to ensure the players know each other intimately as people and as footballers. On the pitch, they’ve reaped the rewards.
Take a look online at the great many people still calling for his head mid-tournament and you’ll realise most are predominantly club supporters often supporting Top Six clubs, presumably not hugely tuned in to the national team. Many get their England content from pseudo-news organisations and popular football fans on social media. If you get all your news from controversial takes on Twitter, you can end up believing anything. Like, for example, that Gareth Southgate has been a terrible England manager.
Those who actually follow the national team home and away — those who get to see Southgate’s England close up — are still fully supportive of the manager. Maybe that is the best metric of a successful manager: the views of those whose lives revolve around paying to follow England. If England are poor, the away fans get little bang for their buck. Right now they’re laughing soberly in the streets of Doha. Southgate is inextricably linked to this — the greatest time to be an England away supporter.
The players also still buy into Southgate and assistant manager Steve Holland’s methods six years after they joined, which, in a world as changeable as this one, is a compliment to them both. You never hear an England player speak ill of Southgate’s regime, nor even offer the slightest gestural suggestion that they’re fed up of him. If he has James Maddison’s respect after the number of times he left Maddison out before these finals, then Southgate must be doing something right.
Some will say it would be scandalous if Southgate did not win anything with this incredible golden generation of players, but that really is such a distorting of reality. Players like Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling were not world stars that Southgate simply beamed down from a spaceship and landed in the same dressing room with. He saw a vision for these players and helped to mould them into the frightening attackers that they are. If Pep Guardiola deserves credit for Sterling’s career trajectory, so does the England manager.
Neither would Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips be the players they are without Southgate’s assistance, nor Harry Maguire or John Stones or Jordan Pickford. Again, England’s quality and England’s manager are inextricably linked. Would we have the same version of Bukayo Saka if his international manager were Sam Allardyce? Have a little think, over a bottle of red wine.
Let’s assume for one moment that Southgate has failed as England manager. Let’s assume he’s sacked on the day England face France in a World Cup quarter-final. Or let’s assume — as is possible and indeed likely — that he leaves St George’s Park for good come what may after this tournament. Who replaces him?Embed from Getty Images
The FA is reluctant to look at foreign managers, meaning Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino are unlikely to be considered. And England manager? Well, the best of them are all preoccupied in large club projects. The best being just two: Graham Potter at Chelsea and Eddie Howe at Newcastle. Frank Lampard? Wayne Rooney? The unemployed Steven Gerrard? No thank you. At least not yet.
So we return to Southgate. In any walk of life, it’s never worth replacing someone unless there is somewhere better who is willing and able to come in. And so we are back to The FA needing to beg Southgate to stay on. His impact on the changing culture and the footballing success of the national team has been too great to allow him to walk out of the door without at least an attempt at changing his mind.
Perhaps people who call for Southgate’s culling do not even know, if they’re honest with themselves, why they want him gone. The most likely reason is that they’re simply fed up with seeing his face. Boredom is not a good reason for a change of manager. Someone can be in a job too long. We know that. Joachim Löw knows that. But it would be crazy to think Southgate has gone stale in this job if England were already out of this World Cup, let alone with them gearing up for a shot at making the final four. England have progressed, of that there is no doubt.
Southgate was asked last week about the importance of Maguire and Stones as a centre-back partnership during his tenure. He responded by insisting that we will not appreciate their value to England until they are gone. The same can be said of the manager. And in years to come, it will.