Gareth Southgate faces a toxic atmosphere with the risk his England have become stale
After a night where everything went wrong for England, many fans who abused Gareth Southgate might agree he did one thing right.
“It’s all up to me,” said the coach, after a defeat against Hungary of historic proportions for the national team.
Only one problem, however, is that many could interpret this much deeper than Southgate anticipated. The growing sentiment, still lingering but articulated so aggressively by a furious mob at Molineux, is that it is “time to go”; that it’s up to him because he’s never been so good.
That’s harsh, of course, but it could actually point to the most significant consequence of the night, beyond any pure football issues within the team or even a loss of momentum. It’s that, for the first time, Southgate faces the truly toxic atmosphere that has come to engulf all England managers.
The added danger is that it wouldn’t take too long to turn completely, that any bad result could be similar to the 0-0 draw with Algeria in 2010, or the 1-1 draw with Russia at the start of Euro 2016. Southgate, for their part, faced that head-on in a typically candid press conference after that 4-0 loss.
“I know the role,” Southgate said, when asked specifically about a position long known as the “impossible job.” “I knew the role before taking it. I’ve seen all my predecessors go through it, great people like Sir Bobby Robson and the way he was perceived.
“If the flak comes my way, I have to deal with that. It’s not realistic to have the ride I had for five years and not have reviews.
It was an admirable prospect given how stunning the result was on the night, but then it was the feeling that Southgate radiated throughout.
He was basically saying it didn’t really matter without saying so explicitly. He highlighted the timing of the season, the unnecessary length of this break, the lack of friendlies before the World Cup and – ultimately – how he had to rotate the squad as a result of it all.
This meant that England never had, as Southgate put it, their ‘strongest team’.
“I don’t think it’s damaging to the mentality of the group because they haven’t been complete for any of the matches. That’s the key factor.
An unfair reading of this would be that the England manager actually looked down on some of his secondary players, and even ‘threw them under a bus’.
But that wasn’t it. It was more Southgate saying that he had gone too far in the balance of the team and that he often left England without sufficient experience.
That, combined with everything else, has resulted in more gaps than usual for this team as well as far fewer goals.
England only scored one in those four games, and that was from the penalty spot. It was probably the most damning of a number of alarming numbers for Southgate from this run, perhaps even beyond the historic scale of the Hungarian result.
Marco Rossi’s gleeful press conference – where he spoke of the possibility of getting a minute’s silence in Hungary on his death – underscored the fact that these games represent greater opportunities for nations below the top tier. This has to do with the fact that most of their players have had far fewer minutes over long seasons.
It is relevant and bears repeating. That’s why, as Southgate made sure to reference, “other teams across Europe have experienced” similar issues to England. All of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Croatia and Belgium had surprises in this truce.
But there is a difference, which marks another genuine concern for Southgate from these results.
Most of these teams put in more than one convincing performance. All showed attack idea. It’s an element that always seems to be missing from Southgate’s England, who remain the main source of criticism.
There’s this persistent argument that he’s far from an elite coach, regardless of his suitability as a managerial figure.
England are too rigid, too defensively structured, too inefficient to use their abundant talent. The biggest argument that goes along with this is that many other managers could get a lot more out of this group, which is one of the strongest in world football.
Some of this may be true, but some caveats are necessary.
England are generously endowed with talent in some areas, but sorely lacking in others. The abundance of No.10s and wide forwards they now have, which the country has so long lacked, is made up for by the absence of an elite passer in central midfield. The preciously rare availability of a proven goalscorer in Harry Kane – something so many countries are now clamoring for, notably Germany and Spain – is undermined by the absence of a top-notch centre-half.
All of this means that Southgate must continually compromise with his team, but it’s just his nature to always lean towards the conservative.
It can still work in international football. This was proven by Portugal in 2016 and France in 2018, two teams that proved examples for Southgate to follow.
There is also something like a myth about international football, which has persisted from a reality now relegated to an increasingly distant past.
It is that it is the high level of the game, with the most demanding managers, where all the elite coaches reside.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Southgate is not usually faced with elite managers. The vast majority of them now work in the club game, because that’s where most of the money and most of the glory is.
Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are doing things at this level that are simply impossible for international managers. If Southgate were to leave, potential candidates would likely fall far short of that kind of quality.
That’s why it’s a problem that’s often overstated, as evidenced by the fact that Southgate itself went on to two strokes of fame last summer. It does, however, point to one of two factors that could actually complicate this for England.
The first is that, in a break from just about every two decades, this World Cup will feature two coaches who are truly elite.
Spaniard Luis Enrique and German Hansi Flick recently won the Champions League. To get an idea of how striking it is, the last time a World Cup manager won the club game top prize, even less than a decade before the tournament, was Vicente Del Bosque. in 2010. He had lifted the Champions League eight years before. Most other European Cup-winning managers have worked at a World Cup long after their best.
But now there is the troubling question of whether Southgate’s reign in England has passed its best; so we are now down a cycle.
Some around the German side for the 1-1 draw in Munich pointed out how there were resemblances to the last four years of the Jogi Loew era, where something that had worked was gradually becoming obsolete. Other long-term England watchers meanwhile say it has similar characteristics to, say, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s 4-1 loss to Denmark in 2005; that point where it just falls and the resentment about it all mounts.
It’s just as easy to forget how popular the Swede once was in England. It was good that he never made it past a quarter-final.
Southgate has surpassed that in both of its tournaments.
Relatively relaxed after the game against Hungary given the circumstances, the England manager was quick to point out that all the ‘pressure’ he faced came from the Nations League campaigns, which had many complications. It was like that since the games at the end of 2020 in the preparation for the European Championships, and it is similar now.
“The irony is that they are in the Nations League games. In other games we had the best performances in 50 years.
This is of course why any talk of his replacement ahead of the World Cup must be dismissed out of hand. There are too many caveats. There is too good a record in tournaments. England are generally too good a team.
Rossi repeated that they were among the favorites for the World Cup and that it was “a miracle” that his Hungarian team beat them.
The chances of glory are still as good, even taking into account this defeat.
It’s the pressure that’s really on Southgate, though. The FA have long had the 2022 World Cup, more than anything else, as their distinctive goal of glory. It has long been believed that this is when many things, including the development of a generation of gifted talent, can come together at the right time.
That’s why, anyway, this result came at the wrong time. Everyone involved wanted this international truce to end as soon as it started.
They now have to dwell on it all summer with no chance of rectifying it anytime soon. This will be the case for Southgate more than anyone else.