Written by Patrick Echatah
The resurgence of Roy Hodgson, English football’s own courtly blazered grail knight, in the same week as Gareth Southgate embarks on what is undoubtedly his own final cycle as manager of England, strikes a wonderful note of circularity.
Hudgson is, of course, Southgate’s de facto predecessor in the position. It is important to keep in mind how lost England was back then as they get ready for their Euro 2024 qualifiers, the initial steps on a steady downhill slope into Germany 2024. All of this is important to keep in mind, even if just to acknowledge how underappreciated the route from there to here has been. Southgate will become the first legitimate England manager to lead the team to four legitimate tournaments if they make it to Germany.
Although Walter Winterbottom reached four World Cups, he served more as a sort of housemaster, preparing meals, doing the dishes, and accompanying the players to the opera. In less crowded times, Sven-Göran Eriksson got three tournaments, Bobby Robson also got three, and Alf Ramsey got three (the internet will tell you Ramsey also reached the quarter-finals of Euro 72 but in fact this was a losing two-legged playoff to get to the tournament proper).
Southgate, who in his early public appearances was so awkward that one journalist compared him to an anteater that is just now realizing it shouldn’t be able to communicate, has emerged as the architect of England football’s longest prolonged spell of success in the past fifty years. The Englishman has demonstrated the contrary over time as simple competence has been welcomed with a chorus of wailing public dismay. We have reached the apex of the Gareth Paradox, whose logic goes something like this, so this thing really is doomed.
The foundation of Southgate’s early success was his decision to let go of English exceptionalism. He also radically revived English exceptionalism by doing this. Southgate is currently viewed by some as a national disgrace, the poison rather than the cure, for the crime of failing to win three straight tournaments while playing all-out attacking Albion-ball. This is because of his own early successes. Winning just a bit is not enough. Only complete victory will do. There is no way out of this situation. If Southgate’s England goes on to win Euro 2024 while playing traditional roundhead football, he will be criticized for not winning it properly.
If England triumphs by playing exhilarating, fast-paced football, there will be outrage and told-you-sos for not doing this earlier. Southgate will be viewed by many as an outright failure if England do not win Euro 2024, which is the most likely scenario for each manager present. However, in reality, he is the exact opposite—a qualified and commendable success.
This is partly influenced by tribal politics. Southgate raised concerns about the situation of England and backed his players in their anti-racism protests. He’s still “Nord,” which means he’s a little goofy, well-spoken, and scholarly in his manner. Some people will never forgive him for these acts.
Southgate’s team had limitations, and he was aware of them. This could never be considered sufficient. We expect our sunny uplands from a dimly remembered past. If this team’s attack-oriented playing style can be slightly improved, there will be more discussion about how exactly England will play from this point on. And that is a point worth bringing up because, first of all, England achieved this at the World Cup and, secondly, because this set of players appears to be able to push it a little farther.
In this way, France’s defeat in Doha proved beneficial. First off, Southgate accomplished what he was frequently accused of dodging. A 4-3-3 formation was used in the World Cup quarterfinal lineup, with Kane, Saka, Foden, and Bellingham, as well as four forward substitutes. England held 57% of the possession and had 16 shots to France’s 8.
In contrast to former competitions, they grew stronger as the match went on and dominated midfield in the second half. Only the most ardent Southgate debunkers could see any shyness in this strategy. France defeated England because they fielded players who were more skilled, mature, and capable of handling the finer aspects (such as, for example, not gum-booting a late penalty over the bar).
The greatest gift from the World Cup is proof that Southgate can use a three-man midfield while preserving attacking strengths and protecting defensive deficiencies thanks to Bellingham’s diverse skill set.
The inclusion of Kalvin Phillips in this group has sparked animosity and the terrifying charge of “loyalty,” which is always bad. Yet, Phillips is there because Southgate doesn’t have many midfielders who can run, pass, and cover, and because that position is essential to unlocking these qualities. Phillips appears to be the player for the position Southgate would want for Phillips to be in. It’s not loyalty, this. A player with the necessary talents to make that shape work and free up the rest of the team is an investment.
There are no happy endings in this job according to history. Not to add that there aren’t many pleasant middles or starts. Although the less spectacular outcome, Qatar 2022 was paradoxically also Southgate’s strongest tournament in terms of fluency and progress. England has a history of dropping a few of these grueling midweek filler matches. But, there’s still a potential that this will end on a major chord.
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