Southgate next Man United manager? It remains a huge and baffling leap of blind faith

Dave Tickner
Man Utd: Gareth Southgate is linked with replacing Erik ten Hag
Gareth Southgate is linked with replacing Erik ten Hag at Man Utd

Not for the first time we find ourselves asking this question: are Manchester United actually going to make Gareth Southgate their manager? Gareth Southgate? Gareth? Southgate?

We’ve previously positioned ourselves firmly in the cynical camp that believes the volume of ‘Southgate to United’ rumours is often very conveniently – for the media, if not the club – at its loudest around those times when international rather than club football is in the spotlight, and there’s no denying this latest burst of noise fits the bill.

But at the same time there’s clearly something in it. It’s clearly not nothing. Even between the March interlull and season’s end there was enough background-level chatter about him being ‘the one Ratcliffe wants’ to realise it couldn’t entirely be dismissed as mere tabloid mischief-making and click-chasing.

We’re not saying Southgate is definitely going to be the next Man United manager, but you can’t say with any confidence that he definitely won’t.

And we still really just don’t get it.

Whatever happens in Germany this summer, Southgate will go down as a good England manager and it may yet be great England manager.

But he’s also without doubt been a lucky one, both in the generation of players he has been blessed with and the tournament runs that have opened up for him. Major quarter-finals against Sweden and Ukraine and a semi-final against Denmark is undeniably kindly stuff. That’s not a criticism, it’s just a fact.

England have benefited from and taken (almost) full advantage of tournaments opening up for them. There’s every chance, for what it’s worth, that much the same happens over the next few weeks.

It’s entirely possible we learn absolutely nothing new about Southgate as a manager this summer: if England win their gentle-looking first-round group they wouldn’t have to face another group winner until the semi-final at the earliest. That’s probably France, and that’s probably another tournament exit and that’s once again a flurry of “Fine, but they’ve lost to the first decent team they’ve faced again”.

But let’s also not pretend just anyone could have done what Southgate has done as England manager. He has without doubt created more of a club atmosphere around the group. Gone are the days of United or Liverpool cliques within the England squad, endlessly suspicious of each other during the uneasy halting of hostilities for international get-togethers.

England players on England duty are now very clearly England players first. There has been a clear and clearly beneficial shift in the culture around Team England on Southgate’s watch, and it would be foolish to pretend that hasn’t had a significant impact on their improved tournament results.

It is, though, undoubtedly Southgate’s greatest triumph which is both compliment and curse. He has had good players, entrusted them and backed them, and got some very decent results out the other end. And if you’re trying to build a team around an exciting and talented core of young players coming through as United are, then the fatherly appeal of Southgate does make some sense.

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But there really is still very, very little about even his best England teams to suggest he would be any better suited to club management now than he was all those years ago at Middlesbrough. He’s older and wiser, sure, but the difference between the two jobs is so vast.

International management is both far more complicated and far more simple. Complicated because of the logistics, of players arriving from all over the place and gathering for a relatively short time to work together. And therefore simple because there really is only so much you can do in that time.

The extreme end of this argument is that everything that has made Southgate a good international manager – prioritising vibes and a straightforward tactical plan – actively count against him at club level, where rather more is required in terms of tactical input.

International football remains, by necessity, a game where managers have limited scope to improve and mould players or even explore tactical switches too deeply. Managers largely have to work with what they’ve got and with no active recruitment options available a large part of that really is also down to dumb luck.

Southgate has had plenty of that as England manager. He’s clearly a gifted man-manager, capable of weaving together a squad and getting them all pulling in the same direction. It’s a vital and under-rated part of management and one not to be sniffed at all.

But in the day-to-day grind of club management it’s also a far smaller part of the puzzle.

The spotlight on the England manager is obviously huge, but it ebbs and flows. He has still to an extent been able to grow into the role with plenty of time each year spent out of the spotlight. He simply wouldn’t get that at United or any other big club and the idea that he might be the best fit for any job of that scale in club football represents a huge leap of faith and monumental gamble.

MORE: Man Utd | Erik Ten Hag | Gareth Southgate