As the manager of England’s national team, it’s advisable to accept as soon as possible that you will never be right. There is a reason why the phrase ‘the impossible job’ was coined during Bobby Robson’s reign, long before the Graham Taylor documentary of the same name. Assume that every one of your decisions will be unpopular, and anything else is a bonus.
Robson and Taylor dealt with a savage media during their reigns, but neither of them got called ‘bias nonce’ on a daily basis. The rise of social media has changed the very essence of what it means to hold an opinion. Views are hardened and validated by an ever-growing echo chamber so that ‘I don’t agree with this’ has become ‘this is wrong’. Suddenly, everyone’s a critic.
Gareth Southgate will always be unpopular to some degree. Being England manager is to accept that only by actually winning a major tournament do you avoid investigation, and even then you should expect the players to receive the most adulation. England may have suffered 52 years of hurt, but don’t forget apathy, anger and disappointment too.
The criticisms of Southgate will not go away, but they have certainly shifted. When he was appointed as Sam Allardyce’s temporary successor, the accusation was that the Football Association preferred a ‘yes man’ candidate, the squeaky clean company guy in his beige suit and beige tie and beige record as England’s Under-21 manager. Southgate was Dan Ashworth and Martin Glenn’s stooge, a man whose only response to being put under pressure would be to politely apologise, immediately make himself invisible and then spend the next few days worrying if he had come across as rude.
Southgate’s progress since his permanent appointment in November 2016 will only be judged post-Russia, but his resolution already merits praise. The so-called ‘yes man’ quickly bumped off Wayne Rooney, the brick tied around the leg of England’s central midfield, and plenty more have followed. England’s World Cup squad of 23 contains just 11 names that went to the European Championship in 2016.
This is not merely moving on the old fogies, either. England had the seventh youngest team at the last World Cup and the second youngest at Euro 2016. Now a feasible starting XI in Russia of Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Phil Jones, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane would contain one player older than 27. That player – Walker – would have turned 28 a fortnight before the tournament began. England’s World Cup squad in 2010 contained 16 players aged 28 or above.
On every charge, Southgate has an answer. Afraid of big decisions? It would have been far easier to kowtow to media and public pressure on Chris Smalling, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey. Southgate told Wilshere he had expectations of his Premier League appearances; Wilshere did not meet them.
Not enough youthful exuberance? More than a third of England’s squad have fewer than ten international caps, and Trent Alexander-Arnold will go to Russia having played a maximum of 45 senior club matches in all competitions. There will be few less seasoned players in the tournament.
Picking on reputation? Hardly, or Wilshere and Lallana would have been taken despite injury concerns. There are shortcuts to earning goodwill with our national media, and accommodating Young Jack is one.
Lacking the conviction to give bad news to big names? Tell that to Joe Hart, assured in March that he would be in Russia but then omitted due to concerns over his club form. Only five of the last 435 third-choice goalkeepers have been used at the World Cup, so the easy option would have been to take Hart and not play him. Southgate felt it important to send a message that form will be rewarded.
Mollycoddling the players? Certainly not the view of Harry Kane, who spoke about how impressed he was by Southgate’s insistence on pushing England’s squad outside their comfort zone in training camps. Kane specifically mentioned ‘changing the mental attitude of the players’; few would argue that improvement was not required.
Big-club bias? Well yes, perhaps. Eighteen of the 23 are contracted to clubs who finished in this season’s top six. But therein lies the advantage of the Premier League’s ability to attract – and financially reward – the world’s best coaches. Eleven of the 20 outfielders in the squad are under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino or Jurgen Klopp, three managers at the top of their – and the – game. Even those predisposed to pessimism will struggle to put a negative spin on that. It would have been more had Joe Gomez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana been fully fit.
Like it or not and like him or not, Southgate has a plan. He wants England to play high-energy passing football with the ball, and press high up the pitch without it. He will also demand that his team is tactically versatile, comfortable in switching between 3-4-2-1, 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-3, sometimes even mid-game.
The most striking aspect of the squad selected is just how many players are comfortable in multiple positions. Ashley Young can play on the left or the right, as a full-back or wing-back. Fabian Delph can play at full-back or in central midfield. Southgate has used right-back Walker as a central defender. Eric Dier can play in central defence or midfield. Raheem Sterling can play anywhere across a forward line. Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli can play in most attacking midfield positions. Marcus Rashford can play wide left or centrally. Trent Alexander-Arnold can play at right-back or in midfield. Gomez and Oxlade-Chamberlain would both have gone too; both are multi-functional.
Were this a Dutch or Spanish squad, we would be discussing its Cruyffian characteristics. Southgate is preaching the same message that is being passed on through the ranks of England’s youth teams: Learning to be tactically flexible helps players react in unexpected situations. The biggest compliment you can pay to this squad is that England could start in any one of three formations against Tunisia, and the personnel is far from set in stone either.
“We have a different type of player coming through our academies compared to the past, in terms of their ability to play as we did tonight,” Southgate said after the victory over Netherlands. “We want them to express themselves, to play with that freedom.” It has been a long time since playing for, managing or watching England felt like freedom.
Like those before him, Southgate will be judged on major tournament performance. There is no better time to be England manager than seven months since your last competitive game and before taking your major tournament bow. Bigger and better managers than Southgate have been chewed up and spat out, leaving us all to pick over the bones.
But if nothing else, Southgate has altered his unflattering reputation. If England needed a reformer, they have found one. If the Football Association needed a safe pair of hands, they found one too. The two need not be mutually exclusive. England have a manager who has made revolution feel like evolution.