There were many reasons to celebrate England’s success at this World Cup, one personal reason is I live on the doorstep of the village of Southgate in the Borough of Barnet and didn’t want to see all the local road signs for Southgate followed in spray paint with the words ‘iz sh!t.’ Instead on Monday we got a very different recognition with Transport For London renaming Southgate tube station Gareth Southgate and thanking the England manager for the journey he’d taken us on this summer.
The man with what was previously dubbed ‘The Impossible Job’ has now inspired ‘Waistcoat Wednesday’ as the English public fell back in love with their national team. Southgate has brought about a defined style & system of play, rebuilt relationships with the fanbase, instilled a club atmosphere at St Georges Park and smashed the glass ceiling of expectation to a generation of fans raised on bitter disappointment and ultimately disaffection with England. Southgate has managed all of this without giving his views on reincarnation, without getting involved in long running legal battles, without sleeping with his bosses PA, without scooting off to a well paid job in the UAE, without being paid £6million a year, without advising undercover journalists how to circumvent his employers rules on transfers, without making an ill-advised fly on the wall documentary and without going anywhere near an umbrella- no wonder the public love him!
How he got it right- Tactics
Nothing sums up England’s turnaround more than the chorus of boos England endured at Wembley last October as they secured their place in Russia with an unimpressive 1-0 win over Slovenia. Southgate saw his side was too static and slow in possession and for the dead rubber in Lithuania switched from a 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2, that game ended in another 1-0 win but the seeds of improvement were sewn.
England continued with the new system of play and ball playing centre backs with Harry Maguire introduced on the left and Joe Gomez to the right, England suddenly had a style and system in place and spent the next 7 friendlies honing it. By the time England arrived in Russia the players knew their jobs and the side clicked.
How he got it right- Mentality
On taking over from Sam Allardyce the new man made a change: Southgate dispensed with Paddy McGuineess & Bradley Walsh as court jesters! He also gave a presentation to the team on how he wanted to move forward and after making tough selection decisions (more on that later) won over the players who bought into the vision he had for England.
Last summer he took the team on a 2 day course with the Royal Marines to build team spirit, he was ridiculed in some quarters for doing so but the players like it, with Harry Kane pointing out they could have gone to play golf instead but the players found this more enjoyable. Southgate brought in champions from other sports such as British Born Philadelphia Eagle Jay Ajayi to give motivational talks to the team- a small gesture but it all seemed to work.
Southgate has brought in a range of Sports Scientists to work on England’s 2 major problems- fatigue and fear twin mental problems that have held back so many England teams in the past. The results were tangible.
How he got it right- Selection
This should be simple but England Manager’s so often get it wrong. When picking a 23 man squad for a major tournament pick players on form, talent and on how they fit into your system. Don’t pick injured players or players short on match practice. It’s incredible how England managers have frequently got this wrong and were Allardyce or Hodgson still around there’s little doubt Chris Smalling, Jack Wilshere & Joe Hart would have all got in.
Worse still Wayne Rooney would still be an undroppable player despite his lack of form and clear evidence his career was in steep decline. Southgate earned plenty of credit with fans in his first get together as England boss by finally dropping Rooney and doing so in a way that the player accepted and respected unlike Steve McClaren’s dropping of David Beckham a decade earlier.
We all have favourite players who maybe missed out on selection but few would argue Southgate missed a trick by not taking a particualr player who would have got England passed Croatia. When the squad was announced without the usual list of compromises and risks there was already something refreshing about England.
How he got it right- Interaction
Connecting with fans is of course much easier when you’re winning, England’s isolationism at South Africa 2010 wouldn’t have been such a problem were they winning but when they were terrible it added fuel to a bonfire that quickly became an inferno.
But Southgate was smart in getting around the usual ‘us and them’ relationship with the media that threatened to rear its head when The Sun took exception to Raheem Sterling’s tattoo. Southgate backed his player and England held a Q&A on Facebook live giving the public direct access to the players as England trained and met football mad children.
Southgate also took the team on the road by heading to Leeds for the final warm up game- something England haven’t done enough since the opening of the new Wembley. They received a rapturous reception at Elland Road before heading to Russia.
During the tournament the daily interviews in ‘The Lions Den’ saw the players engage with fan questions and talk about their experiences in Russia, some players visited the Hermitage in nearby St Petersburg and most importantly Southgate came across as an approachable man who treated his players as men not overgrown children.
The Road Ahead
England will now play in the top division of the newly formed UEFA Nations League with double headers against Spain & Croatia. The winner of the mini group will advance to a 4 way knockout competition next summer, the bottom placed side will be relegated to the second division of the League. Spain are starting over under former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique whilst the games against Croatia offer up a double-headed grudge match. England will also play friendlies against Switzerland & USA this autumn.
Qualifying for Euro 2020 will begin in March with England desperate to make it to a finals where Wembley will host the semi finals and final. England also look like qualifying for the Euro Under 21 Championships next summer offering Aidy Boothroyd the chance to close the circle of youth cups won from St Georges Park.
Areas for improvement
Southgate was sharp enough to point out on returning to England that his team are not yet on a level with ‘the best 5 or 6 teams in the world.’ This is an improving team and that means there’s work to be done. An obvious need is a playmaking number 10 but they don’t get plucked from thin air- England need one of their gifted youngsters to emerge in the role.
He also need to find greater depth to the squad with the first 11 playing all 5 key games for which they were available (the exception being Ruben Loftus Cheek getting in when Dele Alli was injured). Beyond that 11 only Marcus Rashford looks a serious contender to start and there are a few who need replacing…
Southgate will also need to review his own performance as manager and what could have gone better- perhaps the substitutions against Colombia? It’s nitpicking to criticise but England need to find marginal gains and that includes the manager learning from his own (albeit few) missteps.
Southgate has been a credit to England and is the man to move the team forward. Now he needs time to integrate new talent and keep the existing core on their toes- the road signs of Southgate depend on it!