Beer-filled parks and venues erupting all over England as Kieran Trippier bent a freekick into the net in Saint Petersburg has become a rather iconic and poignant sight. When Gareth Southgate’s three lions took the lead against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, anything seemed possible. Just for a moment, their self-appointed title as perennial tournament failures appeared to be disappearing.
Two hours later, normal service had resumed. Croatia turned the game around and, despite their best showing at a major finals in 22 years, England were left soul searching again. It was hardly the first time.
That summer was all about collective power and influence. It was a team built in Southgate’s image — honest, decent, hard-working — with the aim of healing a yawning chasm which had developed between players and fans over the two years prior, after a horror show and embarrassment against Iceland at Euro 2016, the national team’s lowest ebb in a generation.
Roy Hodgson didn’t see out that night in a job. But it was a personal issue, deeper than tactics and approach; a country suffering from societal hardship and divides turned their back on the footballers who represented them. They were shunned as overpaid and ill-informed of the meaning of wearing the shirt.
In that sense, Southgate succeeded. England was proud again and it felt like nothing else mattered during an incredibly difficult time for a team scarred by political turmoil. Crucially, the manager brought the three lions closer to the public by opening the lines of communication with the press Journalists would play table tennis against the squad and it became easier for personalities to shine through. There was nothing cold and superficial about the young, exciting players Southgate had picked. They were relatable, they were honest.
Heading into this summer’s European Championships, delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it almost feels as though things are back to square one. The power behind that emotional outburst seconds after Trippier’s goal is possibly the last time a moment of such elation happened on such a scale, football-related or otherwise, and England must play their part in the rebirth of the country as it begins to pull itself out of lockdown.
There is little room to argue with the fact that Southgate is capable of galvanising a spirit that represents the best parts of the nation, he has done that before, but the scrutiny he faces is much more common and typical of a man in his role. Rumblings of discontent have emerged over a lengthy period about his suitability in a footballing sense. After all, that comes first.
Southgate is presiding over something Hodgson, and the man who replaced him for one World Cup qualifier before a controversial departure, Sam Allardyce, didn’t. The three lions have a genuinely exciting generation of emerging players who could win a tournament. Sven-Goran Eriksson under performed with a team full of world class talent, Steve McClaren completely failed, missing out on Euro 2008, and even someone with Fabio Capello’s reputation couldn’t get things right.
Eriksson’s issues mainly came down to the focus in big tournaments and a refusal to deviate his selection based on form, McClaren struggled for authority and a tactical identity and Capello’s strict approach never sat well with players famously restricted at the World Cup in South Africa 11 years ago.
In Russia, Southgate appeared to strike a good balance. England looked flexible, progressive and effective as they built from a solid three-man defence and played out from the back. Lacking control in midfield certainly appeared to prove costly when it mattered against Croatia. Luka Modric completely ran the show, something Frenkie de Jong also did for Holland in the semi-final of the inaugural UEFA Nations League some months later. A workmanlike midfield has consistently been a feature for England over the years, finding creative players has long been an issue.
He has made big calls on players based on age, form and discipline. Wayne Rooney, England’s captain and record goalscorer, was left out by this manager. Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were punished for breaking coronavirus guidelines in Iceland last year, with the latter yet to return to the three lions fold. Trent Alexander-Arnold, whom many believe to be the best right-back in the world, has been left out of the latest squad after struggling with form this season at Liverpool.
But the frustration with Southgate is, since the World Cup, there has been an emergence of technically gifted midfielders who can give England a foothold in big games. Foden, Jack Grealish and James Maddison are all playmakers who could compliment the likes of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice at the base of the midfield but none have gained the manager’s trust as of yet. Jude Bellingham is coming through, but Chelsea’s Mason Mount, whose game looks to be the least flamboyant of those mentioned, is a regular feature in the side. There is a growing feeling that this most exciting of groups isn’t fulfilling its potential and that is down to Southgate.
Changing the manager is almost guaranteed not to happen. The Football Association may have stumbled into hiring Southgate after Allardyce’s exit but he represents a different way of thinking for everyone involved. Development, from a playing and coaching standpoint, is much more important that it ever was whether Eriksson, Capello or Hodgson were in charge.
The pool of available replacements for the three lions is much smaller, too. With the exception of Eriksson and Capello, the preference has always been to hire a homegrown coach. That is more or less the rule among the best developed football nations. Only Portugal, with Luiz Felipe Scolari, have hired a foreign manager in recent times. That means different criteria is required in the recruitment process and results aren’t everything.
If they were, Southgate’s relegation in charge of Middlesbrough or failure to impress with England under-21s would have counted against him, while Holland are unlikely to have hired Crystal Palace flop Frank de Boer as Ronald Koeman’s replacement.
At the very least, Southgate has got the job because of a philosophy which fits the wider aims for the FA, something not many of his predecessors or available alternatives did. Although his replacement as the elder development squad’s coach, Aidy Boothroyd, continues to flounder in his role.
The three lions have not progressed enough since the World Cup. External factors have not helped, but everyone is in the same boat in that sense. Southgate has a genuine opportunity to end England’s wait for trophy, with the Euro 2020 final at Wembley this summer. But he has to avoid falling into old traps and galvanising a spirit in a team with the right personnel and approach to succeed.
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