Manager has masterminded Englands revival but greater challenges await following their World Cup campaign
Southgate you’re the one. England’s single greatest upgrade at this World Cup: they have a manager who sweated the small stuff that makes the big stuff. The great ability of Gareth Southgate has been to manage the details around this squad, applied by the” elite athletic” habits of British Olympic and cycling success through athletics science, psychology, useful gimmickry. A carefully-schemed squad culture has been promoted. Players have been picked on the basis of ability to “buy into” this, as well as physical kinds: fit, athletic, good habits. England borrowed the” No Dickheads” regulation from the All Blacks. And they’ve become likeable. This isn’t surprising. They haven’t got any dickheads. The fact this kind of quality is being rewarded is progress in itself. But still not quite whole again.
Southgate talks constantly about development. He will know the tactical, game-management part of his World Cup was less of a feature. This is understandable. Southgate is still inexperienced. England don’t have much on the bench play games with. Still, though, England’s substitutions were a non-event. The tactic of pumping long passes forward in the semi-final became predictable. The entropy after half-time against Croatia was reminiscent of other tournament deaths. Back in 2002 Southgate himself noted that England needed Winston Churchill but got Iain Duncan Smith from Sven Goran Eriksson. Watching on Wednesday night from his latest franchise-league outpost as England ran out of ideas, Sven might just have sighed a little to himself. There is much to mull, as well as build on.
The best thing about the past year has been Southgate’s understated ruthlessness. From the overdue ousting of Wayne, to the refusal to take anyone to Russia who wasn’t fit or in form, there has been a heartening element of coldness to the manager’s judgment calls. That must now be applied to his group, to the next step. No favourites. No prefer. Maintain on pruning back the dead heads.
But stick with information systems
Keeping the ball, passing carefully. This was the revelation of England’s tournament, a genuine first right up to the moment they started sending it long and trying to make Raheem at the Luzhniki. This was modern. This was progressive. This actually looked like international football. Don’t turn back now.
Keep on keeping calm
At what point does going on about how you don’t go on about your team become going on about your squad? How easy is to remain humble when everybody talks constantly about how wonderfully, spectacularly humble you are? It is easy to imagine that the hype will now be ramped up again, the expectations lumped on once more, the train cranked back into gear. The test from here is to keep that throttle low, to accept that England beating Panama, Tunisia and Sweden should be a cause of pleasure and fun. But it’s not yet a sign of the second coming( home ).
But it was still good
There is a sub-set of human being who will maintain England somehow fluked a semi-final, that any team they managed to beat must, by definition, be useless. This is clearly misguided. England beat Sweden, Ukraine and Wales at their last three tournaments combined. They have just won three games and a shootout in a month. To disparage this is sour grapes, the agony of find someone you automatically dislike doing quite well for once. Either that or a degree of English arrogance that insists ultimate victory is the only kind of victory. Portugal depicted with Iceland, Austria, Poland and Hungary en route to winning the last European Championship. Is Cristiano Ronaldo also a hair-gelled fraud? The sensible opinion is that this team performed with energy and has adopted a series of tactics that worked against opponents at the same level. The parts that succeeded can be built on. The remainder is just noise.
Lay off Harry
There will also be carping about Harry Kane’s proximity to the golden boot. Three penalties, a deflection and two tap-ins. Just Fontaine must be bricking it. But Kane actually demonstrated his ruthlessness at this World Cup. There is a reason his six aims were carved out of only 12 shots. England only didn’t construct many chances from open play. Luckily they had a one-shot sniper on board when the moments came. There may be issues with this squad. But Kane really isn’t one of them.
England have a goalkeeper
They didn’t before the World Cup. They do know. Jordan Pickford may still attain blunders, may have some dips, but he was probably England’s best player in Russia and deserves a long run at this now.
It has become hard to assess publicly Raheem Sterling’s role. Demeaning, racially tinged coverage of his personal life by the news pages of some newspapers has created a polarised posture. Halfway through the tournament it was being suggested that in fact Sterling was playing wonderfully well, with the implication that to say otherwise was either farther victimisation or a sign of football blindness. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Sterling performed the role given to him with energy, pulled the centre backs around and made space. But a large part of his undertaking as a No 10 is to construction or rating goals and he lacked precision at vital moments. Sterling is one of England’s best players. But this simply wasn’t his best position.
The Modric gap
The evening changed in Moscow as Luka Modric began to get on the ball. Suddenly this felt like a two-tier game. Hold everything: the talent’s here. England have no comparable midfielder, the kind of player who helps you beat the very best squads. But there is playmaking talent in the age groups that might be identified and groomed. If merely Pep Guardiola could get properly stuck into Phil Foden for the next two years. Pray, England fans, for a Manchester City creative midfielder injury crisis.
Don’t go on about Phil Foden now
Or Jadon Sancho. Or Callum Hudson-Odoi. Or Xavier Amaechi. Or Sven Hibblethwaite-Thomas. There will be an recommend to fetishise England’s younger talent, to suggest some great new brave glistening daybreak is on the verge of violating. But those younger players must battle with Premier League short-termism just for game time, and will require above all patience and the right to induce the odd wrong turn. Stay calm. Again, eludes the hype. And Sven Hibblethwaite-Thomas doesn’t even exist anyway.
Enjoy the brief, giddy hiatus from toxic assault
Good luck Gareth. History indicates you’ll need it. One of the side-effects of success has been the neutralising of a notoriously demanding press pack. Southgate has become bulletpoof through this World Cup, wearing a suit of armour in matters of three precious tournament wins. The wider culture has co-opted him. The news pages want to know whose shirts he wears. But it won’t take much. A few poor qualifying results. The realisation that England have an essentially defensive style. You can see how that could play out. All the more reason to stay patient, and for Southgate himself to keep working and improving, always trying to run ahead of the surf.
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