Southgate - You're the one?

 

Southgate - You’re the one?


“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” – The Dark Knight. We’re not talking about life and death here, much to Bill Shankly’s disappointment, but I’d say it sums up public opinion of Gareth Southgate. Maybe some people never even had him as their hero in the first place.

 

His appointment as England manager was at best shrewd and at its worst uninspiring. Having had relative success with the England U21s, Southgate’s stint at Middlesborough was so-so and included a relegation in his final year at Boro. Having steered England to the 2018 World Cup, you’d be lying to say you didn’t enjoy that summer. The waistcoat, the weather, the boys in white doing us proud in Russia. Southgate Mania was in full force as England reached the World Cup semi-finals. Six years later and Southgate’s approval rating has dipped significantly. The popular opinion is that Southgate is unpopular. So why is it that England’s most successful manager since World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey is so unpopular, and is it justified? The Lowe-Down.

 

Favouritism

Southgate’s tenure has seen him remain loyal to a large group of his players. On the face of it, it’s certainly an admirable way to manage a group of individuals and it’s certainly had its merits, however this loyalty to some players has been questioned and rightly criticised. The three condemned men in this instance are Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips. There’s certainly been a time when we’ve seen the best of those players in an England shirt, particularly Maguire and Phillips who have been some of Southgate’s key players. However, the last year or so has been tough for them. Henderson was a rotation option for Liverpool before moving to Saudi Arabia and has since left his retirement home. Phillips has barely played for City, joined West Ham in January and has actually played his way out of the England squad. Maguire remains an enigma. We lack a partner to John Stones and whilst I believe better options like Guehi and Tomori exist, there isn’t a clear Maguire upgrade. Southgate’s loyalty to those three players has lost him popularity with fans and unfortunately, it’s somewhat justified.

 

Style of Play

One of the biggest criticisms of Southgate’s England is that they’re not good to watch. I certainly think there is an element of Southgate wanting England to attack and score goals, just with the handbrake on. Walk before we can run lads! It’s not harsh on him to say that and back in 2018, the switch to a back five, to better protect the centre halves, paid dividends with England getting so close to the final with what was a weaker England squad than previous squads and to what we have now. The Euros in 2021 were arguably England’s worst and most pragmatic performances and yet we reached the final and only lost to Italy on penalties. The consensus is that the final at Wembley against Italy was a big chance wasted, having taken the lead in the first five minutes of the game. I do subscribe to the idea that England were too passive in that game, especially in the second half. I don’t believe that was Southgate’s plan, to be that passive and to sit back as we did. However, he certainly could and should have changed things before Italy equalised.

 

Whilst I can agree that Southgate’s England aren’t as exciting to watch as Klopp’s Liverpool, Arteta’s Arsenal or Postecoglou’s Spurs, the very nature of international football means it’s never as entertaining. England breeze through their qualifying campaigns, swatting aside San Marino, Slovenia and Malta and play a handful of meaningless friendlies against better opposition. Tournament football brings out the best in England and even then, would we really care about the style of play if we won the tournament? France and Argentina weren’t good to watch during the 2022 World Cup. Both relied on a compact structure and called upon their star men, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi to produce moments of individual brilliance. Winning football, in Argentina’s case. Find me an international team that are consistently fun to watch. Dare I say, bar the USA game, we looked the most exciting and dynamic team at the World Cup. Looking at the pool of talent we have in attack now and we must be excited. Foden, Saka, Bellingham, Kane as a front four? With Maddison, Rashford, Grealish and Palmer off the bench? There’s flair, creativity and goals there. Southgate will, and rightly so, be cautious of our leaky defence and will endeavour to strike the right balance. However, he’ll surely know that the best form of defence, is attack.

 

“He’s just not a winner”

Factually, yes that’s correct. Southgate hasn’t won anything as a manager, and he didn’t win much as a player for what that’s worth. The thought process is that England need a “winner” to steer this bunch over the line. I’ve seen shouts of Jose Mourinho to replace Southgate as England manager. A proven winner? Yes. Ish. I actually think Mourinho could end up becoming a good international manager. A man focused solely on results and someone who could now be classed as a “cup manager”, seeing as his last league title win was 9 years ago. The idea of appointing a proven winner who excels in cup competitions to succeed with England sounds, on the face of it, logical.

 

However, we must remember we’ve been down that road before and it didn’t lead us any closer to international glory. Weren’t Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello serial winners at club level? Capello’s persona was that of a “winner”. Hard faced, taking no prisoners, he wouldn’t take any underperforming from the “Golden Generation”. One awful world cup campaign later, and he had left with us asking what the fuss was all about. We, England, are not winners. That’s a fact. Remember your Dad’s warning of, “It’s the Germans, they’ll always end up winning”? Some countries just have that knack of winning when it matters. England don’t. The pressure of trying to win must be immense on the players. It showed in the Euro 2020 final vs Italy where we retreated further and further towards our own goal in the second half. Not because of any instructions from Southgate, but from the pressure of what holding onto that 1-0 lead could mean. The pressure got to the penalty takers too. Saka and Rashford both missed and yet have since been very reliable from the spot for their club sides. Pressure can make you do crazy things. Ask Harry Kane how he ballooned his penalty over the bar against France. The fact it was against his, at the time, teammate Hugo Lloris who isn’t notorious for saving penalties makes it even more unbelievable. Ice cool Kane missed, and France went through.

 

The long-winded point I’m making here is that appointing who we perceive to be a winner to lead this group over the line, isn’t as simple as it might sound. Since his appointment, Southgate has had a remarkable impact on the team and has brought back the enjoyment of playing for England. Young players no longer look weighed down by the shirt as Southgate has seamlessly integrated our best talents such as Bellingham, Foden, Saka and now Kobbie Mainoo regardless of their age. Southgate’s role is simple. He must provide the best environment and foundation for our players to express themselves, score goals and win games of football. So far, Southgate has achieved this, but he must now show he can add his own ingredient to this recipe. I’ve no doubt Southgate’s approach will get us to the biggest games, it’s now up to him and the players to win those games and take that step.

 

Southgate Summer

So now we have entered a twilight zone of being an England fan. Never in my life has a squad looked so strong in relation to other international teams. Only France have a squad that’s comparable to ours. So, if England win in Germany this summer, is it Southgate guiding us to victory or the squad winning in spite of Southgate? The chicken and the egg.

 

One thing that’s undeniable is Southgate’s results in tournament football. What’s that I can hear?  “WE’VE ONLY BEATEN TEAMS WE SHOULD HAVE BEATEN!”. That’s true but it shouldn’t be taken away from him though. We’ve lost those games before. The three tournaments before Southgate saw losses to Italy in 2012, Iceland in 2016 and a group-stage exit in 2014. Southgate deserves credit for his consistency in winning the games we should. Wins in major tournaments are never a given. Italy didn’t qualify for the 2022 World Cup, France exited Euro 2020 to Switzerland and Brazil to Croatia in 2022. England’s key defeats under Southgate have been the extra-time loss to Croatia, a penalty shootout defeat in the final and a narrow defeat by a ruthless France. And yeah, I get it. We still lost. But the margins are narrow. Any of those losses could have gone the other way.

 

Euro 2024 is a defining tournament for Southgate. Not only could it be his last, with his contract up after, but his England legacy is on the line. Win, and his tenure has unquestionably been a success. Lose, and his reign will be one that promised so much yet undelivered. And that, right there, is the crux of it all.

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