It seems a very long time ago now, but two years ago England very nearly shocked the world of football by winning the World Cup. The country’s national team wasn’t fancied by virtually anybody as a potential winner when the tournament started, but a combination of strong performances and fortunate draws saw them make it all the way to the semi-finals before they were eliminated by Croatia after extra time. It was the highlight of a long, hot summer of sport in the country, and it briefly made the country fall in love with their footballers again after many years of underachievement.
Making it all the way to the semi-finals seemed like an even bigger achievement when you consider who their manager was, and still is. Gareth Southgate was never supposed to be an England manager. He only got the job when his predecessor Sam Allardyce was sacked in disgrace for off-field issues after a single game, and his resume didn’t suggest that he was up to the task. His only experience of managing at club level was a three-year stint at Middlesbrough that ended in relegation to the Championship from the Premier League, after which he became manager of the England Under-21 side. He appeared to blossom into the position and became such a celebrated figure in the media that sales of waistcoats skyrocketed because of his influence.
As many a football manager will tell you with a bitter look on their face, two years is a long time in this sport. Past achievements are quickly forgotten, and a few bad results are all it takes to destroy a reputation. England qualified for the Euro 2020 tournament with ease, but the tournament was canceled along with everything else that was due to happen this past summer in the world of sport. It will now take place next summer instead, and off the back of two ‘Nations League’ matches, some supporters are already calling for his head. The hashtag ‘SouthgateOut’ trended on Twitter after a dismal 0-0 draw with Denmark, and it’s now apparent that the sporting public has fallen out of love with their briefly-beloved manager.
You might ask yourself what Southgate has done to deserve this criticism. Southgate himself is probably asking the same question. The England football team hasn’t started losing games, and nor does it appear to be in a worse place than it was a year ago. Denmark isn’t a bad team, and England will still be considered among the favorites when the Euro tournament eventually happens next year. The tea is young, hungry, and blessed with players with incredible attacking pedigree. The problem appears to be – to Southgate’s critics, at least – that the defensive-minded coach might not be the best person to deploy them.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of soccer can look at England’s squad and identify that the team’s attacking players are significantly better than their defensive players. Jordan Pickford, the team’s goalkeeper, looks like a liability at times. Manchester United legend Roy Keane feels that not only is he not good enough to keep goal for his country, but he’s also not even a good goalkeeper by Premier League standards. There are those who feel that Dean Henderson or Nick Pope should be getting selected ahead of him. Eric Dier and John Stones aren’t world-class defenders. Kieran Trippier is not a world-class fullback. Sitting back and soaking up pressure shouldn’t be England’s approach, and yet that seems to be the intention that Southgate’s teams take to the field with.
Contrast the position with the defenders to the position with the attackers. In Jadon Sancho, they have one of the most exciting young wingers in the world, with Raheem Sterling playing on the opposite wing. Through the center, they have Mason Greenwood – arguably the best teenage forward on the planet – with his Manchester United teammate Mason Greenwood. Then we have Harry Kane, who’s in the argument for being the world’s best out-and-out striker. No defensive line on the planet would relish the task of facing that forward line, and yet Southgate seems strangely reluctant to play them together. There’s enough ability in those forwards to tear defenses apart, but the perception of Southgate’s style is that he isn’t interested in allowing them to try.
Part of the perceived problem with Southgate is that, like a frustrated online slots player, he doesn’t appear to be able to get all the right pieces in the right order to get the best out of them. No matter how many ‘high value’ symbols you spin and land while you’re loading up a game like Fluffy Favourites online slot, you won’t make any money from them unless they hit the reels in the right formation. Marcus Rashford is less useful as a left-winger than he is as a center-forward. Jack Grealish isn’t suited to playing on the right, but that’s where Southgate put him during the Denmark game. When the most valuable elements land in the wrong place during online slots, we put that down to bad luck. When it’s happening with a football team, it’s hard to put it down to anything other than bad management.
As we’ve mentioned Jack Grealish, we should underline the idea that he’s symbolic of Southgate’s whole problem. Aston Villa’s gifted captain almost single-handedly kept his club in the Premier League last season and created more chances than the rest of England’s midfielders put together while doing so, but he’s been overlooked dozens of time by England’s manager. He only made the squad this time around as a last-minute call up because of injuries and didn’t make it onto the field until the 75th minute. While he was waiting to get on, Chelsea’s less-productive Mason Mount was selected ahead of him. Similarly, a tired and off-the-pace looking Harry Kane toiled upfront for the full 90 minutes while Danny Ings, who’s had the goalscoring season of his life at Southampton, was left on the bench, unused. Southgate appears to have favorites among his squad, and some players don’t appear to be able to get a look in no matter how good their form is.
With a major international tournament on the horizon in 2021 and a World Cup to think about the following year, England finds itself blessed with the best array of attacking talent they’ve had in generations. They now have a decision to make. Do they allow a defensively-minded manager to take a squad to those tournaments and potentially squander the talent, or do they make the brave choice to cast him aside and find someone who’s prepared to let England’s young guns off their lead? We know what most England fans want, but unfortunately for them, we suspect the English FA are more inclined to stick with what they have.