Only three managers have ever taken England to World Cup semi-finals. Alf Ramsey won the whole shebang in 1966 and was knighted for his achievements, Bobby Robson’s last-four visit in 1990 was part of what made him a ‘Sir’ too, and Gareth Southgate’s surprise run to the semis in 2018… well that has already been forgotten, it would seem.
After decades of underachievement and a slew of coaching failures, England finally stumbled upon a winning formula in 2016 when Southgate stepped in to fill the void left behind following Sam Allardyce’s oh-so-brief stint as manager, taking England to the semi-finals in Russia in his first crack at a major tournament and then achieving third place in the inaugural Nations League finals 12 months later.
And right now, with the Three Lions awaiting the chance to host the delayed Euro 2020 with one of the most promising squads that has been put together in eons, Southgate has led them to the top of their group in the current Nations League campaign following Sunday’s 2-1 win over Belgium.
Yet as they prepare to host Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday you would be forgiven for thinking that the former Under-21 boss had presided over constant failure for the past four years, rather than arguably England’s greatest period of sustained success since Ramsey’s days.
A lot of recent talk on social media and in newspaper pages alike has raised concerns over Southgate’s suitability to be England manager. The charge seems to be that he doesn’t tick 100 per cent of the boxes, but who has ever done that in any coaching job?
Pep Guardiola is, to some, a ‘bald fraud’ who doesn’t have a Plan B despite having won multiple titles in three different countries, including registering a combined 198-point tally between 2017 and 2019 with Manchester City. Meanwhile, any Jose Mourinho triumph is immediately overshadowed by people wanting him to change his ways to encourage more expansive football. Winning never comes without a caveat.
For some, the issue with Southgate is that he doesn’t pick the players they want him to pick. His decision to wait until September this year to call up Jack Grealish didn’t sit well, and neither has his preference for starting with both Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice in competitive games in a perceived display of caution over adventure. There are also slights on his management with every selection of Jordan Pickford between the sticks due to the goalkeeper’s middling form with Everton.
Critics say also that while he may be good at handling the PR side of his role well away from the field, when it comes to matchday responsibilities Southgate doesn’t do a great job of changing games when they start to go against England, with the failure to stop a tide of Croatia pressure in the World Cup semi-final the greatest example.
But to continue to look for fault in Southgate at a time when he is outperforming almost all of his predecessors is churlish in the least. What is this nirvana people speak of where your team’s manager chooses all the players you like, makes all the tactical changes you desire, and gets the perfect result every time? People expecting more out of the national boss than what he is delivering right now are living in a dream world.
We’ve had our spells where we had flair players lighting up the international stage, and England won nothing. There were the times the FA employed the most sought-after coaches in the world game, and England still won nothing. Show me a national manager that won any major tournament in the last 50 years and I’ll show you countless ways they set their sides up with a solid base first and foremost.
In Southgate, we have a man who has spent the better part of a decade now immersed in international football coaching and has delivered results by assessing what works at this level of the game. He has been nothing short of a roaring success so far, whatever your opinion of him. So if you want him out of the gig, tough. You’ll have to at least wait for him to fail first.