Gareth Southgate has confirmed he will be staying on as England manager to see his contract out to the end of Euro 2024, where England are 7/1 third favourites.
While Southgate divides opinion amongst fans, it is undeniable he’s been the Three Lions’ most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey.
It’s hard to define success in football, certainly international football, but compared to those before him, Southgate has done a job no one could have expected back in 2016.
While Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables took England to semi-finals of major tournaments, only Ramsey took England to a final prior to Southgate.
And even reaching the latter stages of tournaments was becoming unfamiliar for England.
At the World Cup, after Robson took England to the semi-finals, the Three Lions failed to qualify for USA ’94 and were eliminated on penalties in the last 16 at France ’98.
Getting out of – but failing to top – the ‘Group of Death’ in 2002 meant England faced a quarter-final with Brazil, rather than a potential semi-final, and while the outcome may have been the same, a semi-final exit would have been perceived as a much more acceptable exit rather than failing to reach the last four once again.
2006 brought about a penalty shootout defeat to Portugal, two years after the same method of defeat at Euro 2004, with Sven-Goran Eriksson failing to take England’s ‘Golden Generation’ beyond a quarter-final.
Proceeding tournaments saw exits of all kinds – humblings by Germany, humiliations by Iceland, and more penalty shootout defeats (to Italy in 2012).
Southgate wasn’t seen as an overly inspiring choice when making the step up from the U21s, taking over from Sam Allardyce, not the most exciting appointment himself, and no one can deny he has exceeded all expectations, perhaps even being a victim of his own success.
By the time England had arrived at the 2018 World Cup, they’d won exactly two knockout matches since Euro 96, a tournament England hosted. England were averaging one knockout win per decade. Southgate matched that tally in one tournament.
It’s also worth remembering that the previous World Cup saw England eliminated after just two games. While Uruguay and Italy were tough opposition, both lost to expected whipping boys Costa Rica, who topped the group.
But for a penalty shootout defeat to Italy, Southgate would’ve won a major tournament with England, and would have been bulletproof. As it is, he had people calling for him to go before the World Cup never mind after it.
But they’re the fine margins of football. Had Harry Kane scored from the spot against France, England, with their strength on the bench, would’ve surely fancied themselves in extra time with Morocco waiting in the semi-final.
The bench, however, has been one of the biggest criticisms aimed at Southgate, with the suggestions that a better manager would have made better subs at better times in 2018, 2021 and even 2022, with one of England’s standout players of the World Cup – Marcus Rashford – coming on in the 85th minute, and Jack Grealish only given the final few seconds.
It meant that England fell short once more, and once more were undone by a big team, which has been one of the other major criticisms levelled at Southgate.
While the maiden UEFA Nations League campaign saw England top a group containing Spain and Croatia, the following season saw them win three games out of six in a group containing Belgium, Denmark and Iceland, with the most recent season seeing England relegated, failing to beat Germany and Italy in four attempts, as well as losing by an aggregate score of 5-0 to Hungary.
There have also been comments about the style of play, but if you’re watching international football to be entertained, you’re watching for the wrong reasons. World Cups aren’t 38-game seasons with managers getting to work with players day in, day out for months on end. League campaigns are about winning games; cup competitions are about not losing.
Take Portugal at Euro 2016. They didn’t win any group game, and qualified for the last 16. In the entire tournament they won one game in 90 minutes – the semi-final against Wales.
Or Croatia in 2018 – all three knockout games before the final went to extra time.
Then look at some of the World Cup winners. France in 2018 had some of the best attacking talent in the world, but Didier Deschamps’ first priority was making them hard to beat. Not always pretty to watch, but effective.
Spain in 2010 would pass teams to death and conceded two goals all tournament – both in the group stage.
In 2006, Italy won the World Cup conceding only an own goal and a penalty in the whole tournament.
International football isn’t about winning; it’s about not losing.
In the end, the FA didn’t part ways with Southgate, but that may have had something to do with the alternatives.
With no disrespect to Lee Carsley or Steve Holland, the pair have virtually zero senior management experience and were amongst the favourite to take over, with the assumption that if a deal couldn’t be struck with the bigger names – none of whom were English, which perhaps created its own problem – the FA may have looked at a continuity appointment with someone already working within the England set up.
There will be some corners celebrating the news that Southgate is staying on, and some corners dismayed, but considering the alternatives, and the depths Southgate has hauled England from, the confirmation that he will lead the Three Lions into Euro 2024 is surely a positive.