In just 12 second half minutes last Monday at Wembley, England reminded themselves and the watching world what they are and could be. An hour into their final Nations League clash against Germany, their final match before the World Cup, the sense of dread was crushing for everybody, not least Gareth Southgate.
The England boss has always been very good at staying grounded and focussed. In his early days as caretaker, he was required to pick up the pieces from a significant off-field crisis when Sam Allardyce was sacked one game into his reign, just months after Roy Hodgson left in disgrace following defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016. It is hard to remember English football sitting at a lower ebb than at that point; competing for tournaments seemed a world away and there was no sign of the wave of quality young players which has since emerged. It was a bleak time, but Southgate laid the foundations for what is, following their appearance in the Euro 2022 final, statistically the best England era since the 1966 World Cup.
He used his communication skills to develop a rapport with fans, and connected the players and media in a way not seen before. Tactically, he found a way to get the best from his squad, which he has been blessed to see increase exponentially in terms of quality since the emergence of Phil Foden, Declan Rice and particularly Jude Bellingham. But since that squad came together, Southgate has been criticised for not utilising it to its full attacking potential, instead sacrificing that in order to manage defensive shortcomings.
Dissenting voices heard after the Euros final defeat to Italy on penalties have only risen in volume over a disastrous summer following relegation to Nations League B. There is a genuine argument for sacking him before the World Cup, but it is not a decision the FA are ever likely to take. Even Southgate admits a disappointing showing in Qatar, these days possibly anything less than the semi finals, could end his reign.
But then came that spell against Germany; 2-0 down and heading for a third straight defeat without scoring, they took the handbrake off. England were imperious, overpowering their opposition to go 3-2 up, roared on by and atmosphere that had gone from flat to something not heard in over a year in a split second. The thing that has defined Southgate’s team more than anything else is mentality, never knowing to accept defeat regardless of the opposition. That’s why belief of tournament success is now more than baseless over confidence, as it became in years gone by.
Yet the issues remain. One common critique of Southgate centres around loyalty, particularly to certain players. Trust is crucial for him; if he feels he has it, then other ‘rules’ he has for selection get broken. Harry Maguire is a great example; Southgate faced a lot of questions for picking him in his latest squad despite him being dropped by Manchester United, going against his belief that club form and game time matters. Then he made mistakes, conceding a penalty against Germany, but maintained the support of Southgate. Regardless of his form, if he’s fit, he’ll be on the plane in November, rightly or wrongly.
Every manager has a spine of players they prefer; that is the basis of a successful team. But that can go too far, and loyalty for the sake of it is never a good thing. Maguire has proven himself for Southgate on numerous occasions, but he can’t simply be selected on past performances. The manager’s argument would also be that he has faced similar friction from fans when it comes to his selections, particularly with Mason Mount and Jack Grealish, and he was able to quell the discontent at that point.
Southgate is overlooking other options in defence who may be well suited, simply because they are not as experienced at international level. You’d be hard pressed to find a more in-form defender and better fit for England’s style than AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori, but he was left out of both games, something that will have stung against Italy in particular, with the game played at San Siro, his home ground.
There are still plenty of reasons for England to be positive. They were in evidence late on against Germany, a Nick Pope error allowing them to snatch a draw in the end. But after playing a huge part in England’s run last summer through his game management, communication and belief in his way of working, Southgate could now damage their chances this time around if he doesn’t adjust to the situation with Maguire and admit he may need an alternative.