After six-and-a-half years as England manager, which has provided this country with some of the best memories in a lifetime, it’s perhaps ironic that his legacy will be sealed in a desert country that has been saddled with human rights issues.
Qatar is where everything comes together for Gareth Southgate and even though he signed a new contract that keeps him the job until 2024, the former Crystal Palace player knows that knives will be out for him if he fails to meet previous standards in major tournaments.
Just two defeats in 90 minutes for England in major tournaments
It’s quite a remarkable job if you consider the fact that in 14 matches at major tournaments England have only lost twice in 90 minutes, and those defeats came against one country - Belgium at the World Cup in Russia. They lost to them at the group stages and also in the forgetable third-place play-off.
The defeat to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final was in extra time, and then the heartbreak of Wembley, where his team were incredibly unlucky to lose out to Italy on penalties. Despite the ultimate disappointment, that summer was perhaps one of the best moments in recent English history, especially at a time when the world was finding its feet after the devastating blow of Covid 19 that swept every country to its knees.
As the gods of football will have, they lost on penalties but there was no hiding from the fact that Southgate had inherited a team that was almost getting used to being perennial underachievers and transformed them into a team which is now rightfully a favourite for major tournaments.
Harry Kane has sprung to life and is closing in on Wayne Rooney’s record while Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Declan Rice and Jordan Pickford have all experienced highs in England colours that they could only dream of. For the avoidance of doubt on how players have excelled under Southgate, Kane has scored 45 goals in 54 caps for England. No player has ever scored more for a single manager in England men’s history.
“Gareth has totally changed what it is like to be with England,” Aston Villa star Ashley Young, who was part of the World Cup party in Russia, recently told the Sun.
“Gareth gives us every chance of going to the tournament and winning it. The criticism Gareth Southgate is getting is absolutely ridiculous. It is bulls**t.”
Calm but firm
In six years as England manager, Southgate has been faced with difficult decisions at every turn and whenever he’s had to make them, he relies on his inner instinct and the principles that have brought him this far.
One of the telling moments of how he can be a silent leader was how he handled the feud between Raheem Sterling, one of the senior members in his squad, and Joe Gomez. Both players had been involved in a scuffle in an ill-tempered game between Liverpool and Manchester City. Sterling, still peeved from the way Gomez handled himself, brought it up again when they were called up for England duty against Montenegro. That situation had the tendency to disrupt team bonds and spiral out of control. But as ever, Southgate got Jordan Henderson, Sterling and Kane into a meeting and explained why Sterling was to be punished for bringing club feuds into the national team.
He respected Sterling’s emotions but also explained that no individual player was mightier than the collective, so the winger was forced to apologise and for his trouble sat out the Montenegro game.
Another was the issue involving two of the brightest youngsters in the team, Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden. Both talented and gifted yet still quite naive and careless, they had broken Covid rules and invited girls into their hotel room in a Nations League game against Iceland where they made their England debut. Southgate was so disappointed in the behaviour, especially as he was under pressure from the press to integrate the youngsters into his team.
He held meetings with captain Kane and some of the senior players before deciding that both players would be kicked camp immediately for breaking coronavirus rules. But behind the scenes, Southgate had laid down the rules - he was not accepting any issues that would leak to the media and bring unwanted attention to the team. Foden eventually returned after his form at club level, but Greenwood has gone the other way in a watershed moment for both youngsters.
One of the unspoken components about success is discipline and you see and feel that every time you walk into the England team.
The core of his team arrive in Qatar knowing what is expected of them
This is where the rubber meets the road for Southgate, it’s where he must show the continuity and progress English fans have been craving and he has the advantage in that he has kept faith with the team that has served him well.
Ashley Young is not in the team but his place will be taken up by Luke Shaw who was beyond special at the Euros. Maguire might be rusty but he’s never let England down, and Walker and Stones have bottomless pits of experience.
Kane will look not only to topple Rooney but also become the first English player to have won back-to-back World Cup Golden Boots. Declan Rice is a better version of the one who played at the Euros and Jude Bellingham has every ingredient to be the next big thing. Sterling has a chance to remind everyone how great he is and Saka and Foden will hope they continue to exceed their limits.
Another advantage for Southgate and his team is that the Premier League is a non stop league, unlike the French, Spanish and German leagues, English players are adapted to playing throughout the festive period so it won’t make much of difference to them playing deep into December.
Every great team has a standard system but can alternate when necessary and Southgate has proven that. Throughout his time he often favoured the 3-4-3 in major tournaments, but can play the 4-2-3-1 - which would make space for Mason Mount in midfield, for example - or occasionally the 3-5-2.
The continuity that he’s always spoken about and evidence of the team’s progression will mean that England are well armed to go on and finally bring it home from the desert.
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