England were suffering. Gareth Southgate thought they were suffering for their success. Unlike those who went before them, the Southgate generation has never really tasted unpopularity and underachievement. Until a manager who had taken England agonisingly close to their second major tournament had secured a historic first, their inaugural relegation from the Nations League. Until they were losing to Germany and for a man as integral to pivotal moments in the history of the England team as Southgate, perhaps it had to be Germany in what might be his Wembley farewell as his country’s manager.
Did the boos beckon? We may never know for certain but the previous two matches suggest so. But if this might yet be a tale of the rise and fall of Southgate, it was interrupted by signs he still commands his players’ confidence, that he, and they, can orchestrate a turnaround. In coming from 2-0 down, in drawing 3-3 with Germany, Southgate sensed a winning blend of character and quality that means more when it is demonstrated in difficult times.
“They have had a run they have never experienced with their national team, they have only known good times and positivity,” he said. He was too understated to ram home the point that the players who have come to the fore in his tenure lack the unpleasant memories many of their predecessors possess because of his prowess. But he has a handful in his squad who are remnants of unhappier times, who can testify that playing for England was an ordeal. A few months before he assumed control, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier and Kyle Walker played in the historic nadir that was Euro 2016’s exit to Iceland. John Stones and Jordan Henderson were on the bench that day, unable even to get in that team.
And if Southgate did not name names, the probability is that they were the ringleaders of the resistance now. His senior players took matters into their own hands this week, with management’s knowledge but without the coaching staff present. “They asked if they could have a meeting on their own to talk things through and for me that was such a positive sign,” said Southgate. An aside followed: “By the way, there are moments at some clubs where that is not such a positive sign. But they talked it through with me. The best teams have a core of players that drive things.”
Part of Southgate’s success has lain in his empathetic and empowering management, in his ability to bring players together for a common cause. When he needed help, they demonstrated a similar trait. Southgate seemed to have consigned the cliques that undermined England to the past. Yet, as he said, it was easier to celebrate their unity when results were forthcoming. “We can talk about team spirit when things are going well but the true test is in adversity,” he said.
Arguably, England have not exited adversity yet. They have gone six games without a win for the first time since 1993, since Graham Taylor’s reign unravelled amid incoherent football. They had only scored one goal in 520 minutes before a quickfire flurry of three in 13. Condemned as dull and defensive, they were energetic and attacking.
And yet Southgate felt they may reap a greater benefit from their resilience and resourcefulness. His team have mounted too few comebacks against high-class sides. If ideal preparation for a tournament can come from wins, here at least it stemmed from a winning mentality. “The whole experience has been one we needed to grow the team,” he said. “We are going to have pressure in a World Cup. You can try and avoid it, but it is coming, so better we feel it and learn how to deal with it. The players reacted in the right way when Germany scored. We showed character but also a lot of quality and I think the crowd also came with us and stayed with us: even at 0-2, they didn’t get on their back and that was so important for us.”
Southgate was not condemned in the court of public opinion. He accepts, however, that some of his decisions will never please everyone. He remains an advocate of the back three, arguing that none of the three goals conceded were due to the formation. “People are going to have an opinion, but I think it's the best way for us,” he added. “I have to accept there’s going to be a huge amount of noise but if I’m going to be wishy-washy, change my mind, and not give us the best chance of winning, then it’s pointless me doing it. I think the players are committed to it.”
The delivery was typical Southgate – eloquent, thoughtful and polite – but there is a defiance to his choice of system and his tried-and-trusted personnel. If many of his squad have never tasted failure, it is in part due to his choices. If they showed a loyalty to him, it is reciprocated. “I think in these moments we’ve got to back our best and are most experienced players, unless we’re in a situation where it’s almost untenable and impossible to pick them,” he added. His own position certainly is not untenable yet and if England was long deemed the impossible job, Southgate made it look more possible than most.
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