Regardless of what happens in Qatar over the next few weeks, Gareth Southgate’s England have a fin de siecle feel about them.
England head into the upcoming World Cup in a tetchy frame of mind. They’ve gone six games without a win, a run that stretches back eight months, and while there remains a degree of confidence that the quality of players at their disposal should at least result in them not embarrassing themselves too badly in The Group of Narrative alongside the United States of America, Wales and Iran, it’s not difficult to imagine how their trip to the Middle East could quickly start to curdle.
All three of their group opponents have motivation to beat them which stretches far beyond anything relating to the game of football itself and this, coupled with that poor run of performances over the months building up to the finals and the traditionally febrile nature of English football culture, makes each of their three group matches a potential banana skin.
And all of this spells potential trouble for manager Gareth Southgate. It has felt for much of 2022 as though knives have been quietly sharpening for Southgate, a combination of that poor run of form over the course of the last few months and the famously febrile atmosphere that surrounds this team when things aren’t going particularly well.
To be clear, this isn’t an attempt on my part to be edgy, and neither is it a pre-emptive jerking of the knee and catastrophising their potential to crash from a group which, on paper, it looks like they should be able to navigate without too much difficulty. Southgate remains the most successful England manager since Alf Ramsey, and his achievement in reaching the semi-finals of the last World Cup, the semi-finals of the Nations League and then the final of the European Championships is going to be a high bar for his successor to have to follow, whenever his departure comes.
But Southgate has been in charge of England for six years now, and there always reaches a point at which a coach starts to look a little stale. And while the team’s poor performances and results throughout much of this year have largely been explained away by a perception of tiredness amongst the players in an extremely packed schedule (the scheduling of four matches last summer at the end of a season already squeezed by playing catch-up after the hitches caused by the pandemic remains one of the barmiest scheduling decisions ever foisted upon the game by a governing body), he has also been criticised for being too cautious when England’s most promising football has come when they’ve moved to the front foot and sought to attack.
The end of this World Cup offered an opportunity for a reset that it has started to feel as though the team itself needs. The squeezing of the schedule will continue. After all, the staging of a World Cup in the middle of winter means that there will be three and half years until the next one rather than four. Whoever the replacement might be would have to hit the ground running and qualifiers for the 2024 European Championships would allow for them to get their feet under the table in a qualifying group which is fairly modest – apart from top seeds Italy – and would likely allow for a mistake or two while still giving them a good chance of qualifying.
Such a decision might also have been the right one for Southgate. He’s never made any secret of his desire to return to club management after his time with the national team is done, but the point at which the credit that he received for his previous achievements might be starting to decline would seem to be a good time to maximise his attractiveness as a manager. Falling on his sword after an underwhelming tournament this winter would certainly be unlikely to give him the calibre of job offer afterwards that he might have hoped for.
The benefits of an orderly and peaceful transition cannot and should not be underestimated. Too often in the past, the appointment of the new England manager has come about in a reactive manner, pushed upon the FA by circumstances that were broadly out of their control. Remember that time when they jumped from Fabio Cappello to Roy Hodgson, and then onto Sam Allardyce?
Well, that’s exactly the sort of muddle-headed thinking they want to avoid in the future. Southgate himself arrived that the very end of that period, but his appointment made perfect sense. After the twin debacles of Euro 2016 and the circumstances under which Allardyce only ended up in the job for one game, bringing someone in who with considerable experience of the way the England set-up works was entirely appropriate. But an orderly and planned accession is surely preferable to the usual recriminations and bun-fights that usually envelop such a decision.
The squad he’s picked for the tournament is as good as we could have hoped for, but the stars do seem aligned against England, this time around. The heat and humidity are likely to form considerable challenges which, without the time even being available to acclimatise to them being available thanks to FIFA’s stupid timing of the tournament, might prove obstacles too great to overcome.
It should go without saying that England have much to be thankful to Gareth Southgate for. Their run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup might have been wind-assisted by a favourable draw, but you can only beat the opposition that is put in front of you, and no matter how carefree the attitude among both the camp and the supporters at the time, to get that far in a World Cup means coping with pressure after pressure. And considering some of the reception to the result of the Euro 2020 final, it felt difficult to believe at times that they’d been within a penalty shootout of lifting their first trophy in more than half a century.
There comes a point at which it’s time to step back and consider whether this might have just run its course. Gareth Southgate and England might have reached agreement before the start of this tournament, allowing time for everyone to reflect upon just what he did achieve before wishing him well in the shark-infested waters of club management. But instead, we can expect a histrionic reaction should England fail to go as deep into the tournament as they have in their last two, and the possibility of an ignominious departure at some point for a manager whose record really deserves better. Some might argue that this is just ‘The England Way’, but it doesn’t have to be like this.
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