Of course, Gareth Southgate knows the history of his predecessors as England manager only too well and knows that there are highs and lows. In July 2021, Southgate made himself vulnerable by choosing his penalty takers in the European Championship final against Italy, but despite the defeat he and his team had reached the peak of their creativity. A glorious future was predicted for him and his young team – now, a little over 14 months later, he meets Germany on Monday evening after being relegated from Nations League Group 3 and is confronted with criticism that surprisingly clearly questions his suitability as national coach puts.
“I think that’s just how it is at the moment and I have to accept that,” said Southgate after Friday’s 1-0 draw against Italy in Milan, their third defeat in five games. However, he did not want to allow discussions about his suitability two months before the World Cup: “I think I’m the right person to lead the team into the tournament.”
It looks strongly that Southgate is not alone in his beliefs. Serious debates about a replacement are not being conducted within the English FA. Time would also be too short for that, but above all the 52-year-old is given a lot of credit. At the 2018 World Cup (semi-finals) and Euro (finals), Southgate proved he had the skills of a tournament manager. He is not denied these qualities either – but the playful deficits of the English team have recently been serious. The fact that names like Thomas Tuchel’s come up in the public debate expresses the longing for a changed football order.
Southgate is sticking with controversial defense boss Harry Maguire
Against Italy, England again played with a back three, which has been criticized for inhibiting play – and because this system features Harry Maguire, a defender who is completely out of shape. Maguire, who was still the discovery of the tournament in 2018 and a crowd favourite, has not been a regular starting eleven player at Manchester United as captain and is also a constant factor of uncertainty in the national team.
But Southgate remains loyal to him, jeopardizing a promise he made in 2016. When he took office, he said he would not “set up according to reputation,” too many of his predecessors had done so. For Maguire, however, he is now making an exception, six years later: “He is an important player for us and it is important to strengthen our best players. Whatever reputation I have to lose, I’m counting on him.”
The same applies to the basic formation. The back three give England “the best chance over the coming months,” said the coach: “We have alternatives in these positions if someone gets injured and then we don’t have to change the system and start over.” That sounds like a pragmatic approach, but it could mean that Southgate’s team is getting better and better at calculating: England could hardly find any solutions from midfield against the well-organized Italians. If so, then through individual actions.
Striker Harry Kane provides the few bright spots
However, Southgate still has enough characters in his squad, including center forward Harry Kane, who other national coaches – for example Hansi Flick – would be only too happy to field. Kane remains a guarantee for offensive actions, together with Raheem Sterling (Chelsea) and Phil Foden (Manchester City) he provided the few moments in Milan in which one could recognize the talent that automatically promoted the English to the group of favorites at the World Cup.
As a connoisseur of English football history, Southgate knows who to look to as a role model in this difficult situation. Already in the summer he was reminiscent of Sir Bobby Robson, who was mocked shortly before the 1990 World Cup and was about to be dismissed – then he led England to the semi-finals and narrowly failed there to Germany. “I know where Sir Bobby had to go,” said Southgate, who, by his own admission, is the same as for all his predecessors: “In the end, I’m measured by tournament success.”