In (somewhat) Defence Of Gareth Southgate

Last Updated on 16 Jun 2022 12:49 pm (UK Time)

For all of my Football watching life, England have been a disappointment. I was born several days before Football came home with the opening of Euro 96, when England reached the Semi-Finals. They would not reach another for 22 years. In those 22 years, The Three Lions won one knockout game, a Round of 16 tie against Ecuador. They took part in four penalty shootouts in that time and lost all of them. Their very worst was reserved for the Euros, in the 2000 edition they didn’t get beyond the group stage and in 2008 they failed to even qualify. Since winning the World Cup in 1966, England had been by a considerable distance, international football’s biggest underachievers. 

Despite regularly having some of Europe’s and the World’s best footballers, England failed to qualify for the World Cup three times between 1974 and 1994, and reached just two major semi-finals between 1970 and 2016. For everyone of my generation and even the generations above, supporting The England National Team had been an extremely underwhelming experience for as long as could be remembered. 

But after Sven-Göran Eriksson had failed to win more than one knockout game across three tournaments with England’s “Golden Generation” things sunk to new lows. First England failed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1994, when Steve McClaren’s England missed out on Euro 2008, then under Roy Hodgson, the side performed abysmally first at the 2014 World Cup where they were the very first team of 32 to be eliminated, mathematically unable to advance to the next stage just 7 days after the tournament in Brazil got under way. 2 years later, greater embarrassment was dumped on the country when England exited the European Championships at the Round of 16 stage against minnows Iceland, a nation of around 350,000 people playing at their first major tournament. 

By this stage it had become increasingly difficult to care about England. They had long since become completely unworthy of support, they were too frustrating, players who were consistently quality for their club sides would only perform for England in qualifiers or friendly matches, playing as shadows of themselves when it came to crunch time at a World Cup or Euros. 

Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse, Sam Allardyce took the job and was sacked after just one game, due to footage emerging of him negotiating with a journalist posing as a businessman, as the England manager advised him on how to get around FA rules on player ownership.

By this stage, public opinion and mood towards the national side couldn’t have been any lower. England U-21 Manager Gareth Southgate was promoted to take temporary charge of the senior team. Southgate’s 4 games as temporary manager featured 2 wins over Malta and Scotland, and 2 draws with Slovenia and Spain, despite England leading 2-0 against Spain after 88 minutes. He had hardly passed his audition with flying colours but got the job anyway, because there was simply nobody else willing to take it.

A 94th minute winner by Kane to beat Slovenia 1-0 at Wembley had secured England’s flight to Russia, and the result rather summed up England’s qualifying performance. They managed 18 goals in 10 games, only one more than Slovakia and Scotland, in a group up against the likes of Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta. Expectation on a England side had likely never been as modest as it was going into the 2018 World Cup. 

England’s first game against Tunisia saw a promise of the usual rubbish from the side in a major tournament as they struggled and needed an injury time winner to beat the African outfit 2-1. However against World Cup debutants Panama, suddenly things changed. A nation desperate to be able to get behind their national team was finally rewarded with something. England led 5-0 at Half-Time, and went on to win 6-1, their biggest ever win at a major tournament. It was only Panama, but people had not forgotten England’s struggles in recent years against the likes of Trinidad & Tobago and USA, and now was not the time to be pedantic. With qualification secured, Southgate rotated for the final group game against Belgium and a 1-0 defeat meant a second place finish and a Round of 16 meeting with Colombia. 

Kane gave England the lead from the spot, but Colombia equalised in the 93rd minute, with the game eventually progressing to penalties. It looked likely to be an all too familiar tale for the Three Lions with yet more penalty heartache when Jordan Henderson missed. But then something different happened to alleviate us all from the usual script, Colombia failed to take advantage and a Pickford save from Carlos Bacca meant Eric Dier’s converted spotkick was able to give England their first shootout win since 1996. In their first Quarter-Final since 2006, Southgate’s team beat Sweden 2-0 to reach their first World Cup Semi-Final since Italia 90. 

They met Croatia and took an early lead from a Trippier free-kick. A great chance to double the lead was passed up when Kane opted to shoot rather than find Sterling with the goal gaping. Croatia’s experience and quality operators in midfield began to tell however, and after Perisic had levelled things up, Mandzukic delivered the knockout blow for Croatia in Extra-Time. It would be they who went on to meet France in the final, whilst England had to settle for a Third-Place play-off against Belgium who again beat them, this time 2-0.

Despite the disappointing conclusion, an unfancied England side had had their joint best World Cup since winning it 52 years prior. By finally winning a penalty shootout and a Quarter-Final, the team had finally given their country something to shout about and some pride had finally be restored after a long absence. The World Cup took place a few years after the Brexit vote which split the country, and in between two extremely divisive General Elections, the England team were able to deliver a very welcome respite from all the negativity and unpleasantness that Politics had stirred up across the nation, and Southgate was very aware of this. He summed up in his interviews the positive effect the team were having on the country, by giving the people something to united over for a change. 

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England’s resurgence continued in the newly formed Nations League, they won away at Spain in a game they led 3-0 at half-time and then scored 2 late goals to gain some revenge at home to Croatia. In the Semi-Finals, they led against the Netherlands but lost in Extra-Time. Third place though was secured with another shootout victory, this time against Switzerland. In the following Nations League, England beat Belgium at home but were unable to finish above them and qualify for the Semi-Finals, finishing 3rd below Denmark by virtue of head to head record. 

Euro 2020 qualification was secured in emphatic fashion with 37 goals in just 8 games, with only 6 conceded. With all their group games at Wembley Stadium infront of a reduced capacity due to Covid restrictions, England made a solid start beating World Cup finalists Croatia 1-0. However to everyone’s surprise, England were then second best against Scotland and were only able to draw 0-0.  They were also unimpressive against Czech Republic in another 1-0 win. It was hard to be optimistic at this point, England had kept 3 cleansheets, but only 1 player had scored for them and the ball was being moved especially slowly and cautiously, with striker Harry Kane regularly dropping far too deep to be anything but harmless. 

Another reason to lack optimism was the team’s round of 16 opponent Germany, who England had not beaten in a knockout match since the World Cup final of 1966. Sterling grabbed his 3rd of the tournament with a quarter of an hour to play before Kane made it safe to ensure England’s progression to the last 8 and only their second ever knockout stage win at the Euros (their first not requiring penalties). In Rome, England got off to an ideal start in their Quarter-Final against Ukraine, Kane giving them an early lead. 3 second half goals were added as The Three Lions secured their best ever knockout stage result with a 4-0 win. 

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They returned to Wembley to meet Denmark in the Semi-Finals, and conceded their first goal of the tournament from a Damsgaard free-kick. They trailed for less than 10 minutes before an own goal drew them back level. With an extra-time penalty from Kane, England had reached their first final for 55 years, and their first Euros final ever. Against Italy, England had home advantage and scored with their first attack leading until the 67th minute when Bonucci forced the equaliser from a set-piece. The game progressed to penalties and it was advantage England when Belotti missed. Rashford though cancelled this miss out and Sancho gave Italy the edge when he also failed to convert. A Jorginho miss then put the tie back in the balance but 19-year old Bukayo Saka’s penalty was saved to secure glory for the Italians. 

Since then England have secured qualification for the World Cup in Qatar, but made a dreadful beginning to their third Nations League campaign. They’ve failed to win in four games, losing home and away to Hungary, most damaging was a 4-0 home loss which must go down as one of the very worst results in England’s history. Now the Nations League is in my opinion played too often, it should be every 4 years like the World Cup and Euros, rather than every 2. And having these 4 games at the end of a long, hard season due to the World Cup being moved to this November, has not done anyone any favours. All that being said, you simply cannot lose 4-0 at home to Hungary, no set of circumstances can ever make that acceptable, and it has to go down as Southgate’s worst moment as manager so far by a big margin

Aside from when the spirit of tournament football overtakes the nation and it’s all anyone can do to stop themselves from constantly alternating from “Football’s Coming Home” to “Southgate You’re The One”, Gareth Southgate is not a popular manager in this country, he is clearly not well rated. The level of criticism he receives however from supporters on social media I have always found to be extremely heavy-handed, the vitriol seems a lot more unpleasant and just plain nasty than it was against for example Roy Hodgson, and I’m not atall sure why that is. 

Let’s look at some of the regular complaints levelled at Southgate. 1. Any decent manager would have won the World Cup or Euros with England. Well Sven-Göran Eriksson won 7 major honours with Lazio in 3 and a half years just prior to taking the England job, so he was certainly a decent manager. He could only manage 3 Quarter-Final exits with a team full of proven World Class players. Fabio Capello came to England just after winning La Liga with Real Madrid, he also has a Champions League and several Serie A winners medals in his trophy cabinet. So yes you could argue he was quite decent, though with him England won just 1 of 4 matches at the 2010 World Cup, exiting 4-1 against Germany. So it’s clearly not as simple as *any* decent manager would perform better with England than a World Cup semi and a Euros final, because Sven and Capello were better than decent and far more proven than any coach England are likely to get should Southgate be dismissed as many would like. 

Another complaint levelled at him: “he wouldn’t be good enough to manage in the Premier League”. Well with very few exceptions, almost every International coach wouldn’t, Southgate is far from unique in this regard. The best managers nearly always coach in club football. Though it’s also true that club and international management are two different things that require different skills and qualities. Scolari for example looked out of his depth in the Premier League with Chelsea, but he won the World Cup with Brazil and reached a Euros Final with Portugal, so he was evidently still a good International manager. Aswell Joachim Löw had a fairly mediocre career in club management mostly coaching in Austria and Turkey before taking the German National job, where he reached atleast the semi-finals of four successive tournaments, and won the 2014 World Cup.

Next up, “He’s had easy draws, that’s the only reason England have gone far in tournaments.” Oh how short people’s memories are. England have been facing “easy” opponents regularly in tournaments long before Southgate arrived, although they repeatedly made very hard work of them. In 2010 England failed to beat USA or Algeria, in 2014 could only draw with Costa Rica who they finished three places below, in 2016 they couldn’t beat Russia, Slovakia or Iceland. It’s alright saying Southgate’s draws have been easy, but the fact is before he arrived teams similar in level to these ‘easy’ teams, were not being beaten by England. Under him England conceded 2 goals at the Euros in 7 matches, 2 of which went to Extra-Time. No matter who you played, you’ve got to be happy with stats like that.

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Gareth Southgate is England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. Such is the dislike for Southgate, this is often balked at, but it’s a statistical fact. In 2 major competitions as manager, Southgate has more wins than any other England boss, more knockout stage wins, more Quarter-Final wins and more goals scored under him at a major tournament. This is despite 5 England managers having been in charge at more tournaments. England have reached the semi-finals at 4 major tournaments, 2 out of 2 under Southgate and 2 out of 21 before him. This is some much needed perspective that a lot of people would benefit from gaining. Though I do not expect them to, as I have seen takes such as “anything less winning the tournament is meaningless” suit yourselves, but if you see getting to a penalty shootout in a Euros final as just as bad as losing to Iceland in the Round of 16, I feel sorry for you.

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Now let’s look fairly at the things Southgate has got right and wrong during his tenure so far and adjustments he needs to make going forward. And he will be going forward. Talk of sacking the man is nothing short of ludicrous a few months short of a World Cup, especially considering Hodgson was given another tournament after getting England eliminated from the World Cup in a week. When Southgate’s worst performance at a major tournament so far is a semi, I think it’s fair to say he should be given the benefit of the doubt with a country that’s only ever won one tournament. 

Where he has done well has been with the team spirit he’s been able to generate within the group, it’s a far cry from the days when the players sat at different tables based on the club’s they played for. These lads all get on, and when they don’t the trouble is stamped out straight away such as when Joe Gomez and Raheem Sterling carried over some ill-feeling from the recent Liverpool v City fixture into the camp. It was immediately dealt with, Sterling was sent home, lesson learned. He has also made sure every player feels valued and important, no more or less than anyone else in the squad barring the captain Harry Kane. You got the sense in previous England squads that lots of players felt they were just there to make up the numbers and weren’t really in with much of a look-in, it’s certainly not like that anymore, players are always getting chances. 

However, it’s fair to say this also has a negative side to it. Southgate is so willing to give players chances, that it’s led to him chopping and changing the team a little bit too much. He doesn’t appear to know his best 11, nor his preferred formation. Players are coming in and out so much that it’s difficult for them to really impress because no sooner are they getting used to their role, they’re out of the side again for someone else. 

Now on one hand, this is somewhat understandable, England have a squad full of very good players, and in certain areas such as right-back, centre midfield, attacking midfield and outwide, so little separates the players that they’re certainly not straightforward choices to make. But it is time to make them. All countries rotate a few players here and there to have a look at them and give them a chance, but with England it feels taken to the extreme. The other nations who are in with a shout of winning the World Cup such as Argentina, Brazil and Spain definitely rotate considerably less and their managers seem alot more certain in knowing who is their best 11. 

In these 2 final Nations League games, which are now effectively the final warm-up games before the World Cup starts in November, Southgate needs to go with what he believes is his very best 11. It sounds simple, but currently he isn’t doing it, due to seemingly being side-tracked by this idea of giving every single player an opportunity at every possible occasion. The conditions in Qatar are going to be very hot and humid, and England are going to really struggle if they’re not able to better keep the ball. If I were Southgate, I would be looking to decide my best team and formation for Qatar based on what will help us to best manage the conditions which means getting the best possession based footballers in the team. We need to really look after the ball and make sure its the opposition, rather than ourselves doing most of the running, and in recent times especially against strong opposition we have simply not been good enough at staying in possession.

England have never got beyond the Quarter-Finals at a World Cup outside of Europe, and I think it would be a good result and continuation of their progress if they were able to. It looks a big ask currently, as Wales, USA and Iran will look to frustrate with organised defending, and it will pose a big question of England’s creativity which has been sorely lacking of late. 

This will of course be the first ever winter World Cup and first ever mid-season tournament, and with no warm-up games prior or the chance to settle for long in the country before having to take to the field for the opening game, the competition is going to present some unique challenges and problems. Of course I expect Southgate to be savaged if England don’t win the tournament, but I really do think it’s difficult to judge any manager too harshly based on this competition due to it’s highly unusual circumstances. All the managers are in the same boat, but I believe these conditions will significantly lessen the advantages the big countries will usually have and we will see a lot more upsets than normal. I am predicting the strangest World Cup since 2002 which saw South Korea and Turkey in the Semi-Finals, I think we could see some similarly oddball names in the latter stages this time out too. 

Barring a disastrous exit before the Quarter-Finals, I would keep the faith with Southgate going into Euro 2024. I see that as the tournament we really need to be focusing in on and looking to win, giving the ages of the players by that time. The realistic aim should be to win that tournament in Germany, as for Qatar, England should of course consider themselves capable of going all the way but I would consider another Semi-Final enough to keep the momentum rolling. 

In conclusion, there is no doubting the time may come when we all look at Southgate and conclude he isn’t the man to end England’s long wait for a trophy. The defeats against Croatia in 2018 and Italy last year came in a similar fashion, and if such a similar loss happens where England lose their grip on a game with Southgate being found wanting again tactically, then the FA should make the call to say “Thanks for turning us around, we were in a real mess when you took over and you’ve set us on the right path, but we’re going to go with someone else now to try and get us over that last hurdle.” 

And that sentiment should be echoed by every single England fan. Because Southgate has not been perfect, he’s been great in some aspects, not all, but he’s still been the best England manager for over 50 years.  And I believe he deserves a lot more respect and warmth than he’s currently receiving. I won’t be surprised if we find out just how easy this job really *isn’t*, when a new man that everyone is shouting for such as Eddie Howe or Graham Potter find it difficult to improve on Southgate’s tournament results. 

The Southgate appreciation club doesn’t have many members and stepping out from the crowd to argue that maybe Southgate isn’t a completely useless f****** c*** leaves you in the minority, but I can’t find a way to feel that level of animosity and disdain towards him. He’s given me some great days and nights watching the national team winning major Quarter-Finals and Semi-Finals, days I never would have believed could come so soon after the shame of the Iceland defeat. Simply put, Southgate has made England worth caring about and worthy of support. Does that mean there hasn’t been bumps in the road? no. Does it mean that the time will not ever arrive where it’s time to move on from Southgate? No. But it means he should be worthy of at least a base level of appreciation. 

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