Gareth Southgate is depicted as either the man steadily leading England ever closer to the tournament success it has craved for six decades or a manager guilty of wasting the country’s finest talent pool for a generation. This is the life of an England boss: uniting a nation every two years for a major finals, forever dividing opinion in between.
Until recently, the debate was heavily one-sided in Southgate’s favour. Since taking charge after the double debacle of England’s shambolic Euro 2016 exit to Iceland and Sam Allardyce’s 67-day reign, the team’s progress has been inexorable.
First, Southgate guided England to their first World Cup semifinal in 28 years at Russia 2018, losing first against Croatia and then in a playoff to Belgium to finish fourth. Then a third-place finish at the inaugural UEFA Nations League a year later constituted another measurable step forward in England’s evolution before their best achievement yet at Euro 2020: a first major final appearance since success at the 1966 World Cup, losing to Italy in a penalty shootout.
England may have qualified top of Group I, scoring 39 goals in 10 matches — the best goal tally of any team in Europe — yet a dreadful Nations League campaign saw them relegated from the competition’s top tier. After failing to beat Italy, Germany and Hungary either home or away, England will arrive in Qatar amid their worst run of form in competitive matches since 1958.
A lack of invention and dynamism in those most recent matches has prompted a degree of revisionism over England’s tournament performance. Should England have kept the ball better against Croatia in that 2018 semifinal? Was Southgate too cautious throughout Euro 2020? Should England have gone for the jugular when they were 1-0 up in the final with Italy palpably wilting in a cauldron-like Wembley atmosphere?
Questions have mounted, some with a darker, personal edge as Southgate faced chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” and “you’re getting sacked in the morning” when England lost 4-0 at home to Hungary in June, an unsavoury incident not explainable as a one-off given travelling supporters booed him after September’s 1-0 defeat to Italy at San Siro.
It is a remarkable change in a sentiment towards a manager who has done so much to reinvigorate England after years of disappointment, someone whose sartorial choices once led Marks & Spencer to claim a 35% surge in waistcoat sales now facing a backlash against his most basic football decisions.
“The fact is, our results haven’t been as good and therefore people are going to ask questions about that and inevitably that comes onto either the players or the manager,” Southgate said, speaking exclusively to ESPN. “Rightly, as the manager, I should bear the brunt of that. It is my job to take the heat for the team. I’ve had to lead through a different period, through a different type of narrative than I’ve had over the last five or six years.
“At some point, that was inevitable, I think. It might have come 18 months into the job. It would certainly have come if we hadn’t done as well in Russia or if we hadn’t done as well in the Euros. We understand some of the reasons why we’ve had difficult results across the summer, not least the quality of the matches we’ve played. We’ve played the Nations League three times, we’ve learned so much from the games, but it has meant 18 competitive matches against top-tier opposition that previous England teams have never had to deal with. I think it has helped us for the tournaments but it has definitely been harder working between the tournaments.
“As long as we’ve got a clear understanding of that and rationale for that and that we don’t get distracted by the noise outside of our camp, which will always be there in one form or another, then actually the period we’ve been through, we’re better for it.”
This latest tournament cycle — shortened by Euro 2020 being delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — began with the fallout of that defeat to Italy at Wembley. Beyond digesting an agonising loss, the aftermath included the three players missing penalties in the shootout, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, all suffering racist abuse while the English Football Association were investigated over security failings which saw hundreds of fans force their way into the stadium without tickets amid scenes of violence, drug-taking and excessive drinking.
Southgate, visibly drained by the whole experience, was said by some close to him to be doubting whether to continue. But he was emphatic when asked if he ever thought about walking away.
“No,” he replied. “I think we felt a lot of the things we were doing were on track. We had a lot of young players who were able to not only be available for the next tournament but are going to improve over the next two or three tournaments. We’ve predominantly got a young squad and the challenge of a World Cup that was only 18 months away was one that was hugely exciting. Of course, any time you finish a tournament, it takes a huge amount of energy and you need time to recover from it.
“Look, we had a magnificent experience but there was a lot of fallout after the final. That also takes you a little bit of time to get your head around and really be able to review things as a team of staff where you can be really accurate on the analysis.”
In 2014, E60 went to Qatar to report on the plight of migrant workers there. This spring, they went back, to see what has changed, and not changed, in the last eight years.
What helps him remain detached from the rollercoaster of emotions is experience. Southgate amassed 57 caps as a player — the nadir of which came when writing his own personal chapter in England’s history of penalty shootout misery when he missed the vital spot kick in a Euro ’96 semifinal against Germany — and now 76 games as a manager, the fourth longest-serving in England’s history after Sir Walter Winterbottom, Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson.
It is a job in which the occupant is expected to possess an authoritative opinion on matters far beyond football, but even having watched several predecessors first-hand, the wider societal issues that have fallen into Southgate’s purview since 2016 are remarkable in range.
In 2018, Russia allegedly poisoned three people with Novichok on English soil, leading to escalating tensions between England and Russia. At last year’s delayed Euro 2020 tournament, England players were abused by some of their own fans as they took a knee in an anti-racism message, while the build-up to this year’s World Cup in Qatar has seen concerns over the treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Southgate has to walk a tightrope and it is a balancing act he usually performs very well.
“Not everybody would agree with that,” said Southgate. “It depends what view they take. This role comes with responsibility and with opportunity to affect things beyond football. There’s a balance to that.
“We were very strong last year on racism. That’s an area that has affected our team. We’ve been in the arena where it has affected our team as well so it has been really in front of our faces but that has had a negative reaction from certain sections of the fanbase.
“I have to accept that. I think it is the right thing to do, to support equality and to support our players especially. But not everybody is going to hold those views. I think there is responsibility that is two-fold in that I have to understand we have a government that are dealing with things, there are certain political areas where it doesn’t help to go in too firmly because discussions are ongoing behind the scenes or we’re talking behind the scenes on certain issues.
“You can inflame things by being too strong publicly at the wrong times. That is a difficult balance and I’m not an expert at it. I am a football man who didn’t go to university so I will speak from the heart if I think the time is right, but I also do understand that there’s a responsibility here. We want global relationships, we trade with lots of different countries as well and there’s an impact as the England manager if you start spouting off in every area.”
The problem for Southgate of late is that it isn’t one of these societal woes or off-field issues that has got him into trouble, it is the football. Although England finished as top scorers in European qualifying, 24 of those goals were against minnows San Marino and Andorra.
Striker and captain Harry Kane has not scored an international goal from open play since November 2021 and the minor gripes over Southgate’s conservatism have only grown as England have struggled of late; a superb second-half comeback from 2-0 down against Germany, surging into a 3-2 lead before conceding a late equaliser, was a flash of inspiration that serves as a reminder of the firepower they possess.
But Southgate’s approach is principally informed by England’s habitual tournament failings: individual mistakes (and red cards — think Wayne Rooney in 2006, or David Beckham in 1998), an inability to retain possession, fatigue, the pressure of the shirt inhibiting performance and a lack of bonding within the squad.
Southgate has deconstructed these issues forensically, helping England thrive at tournaments. He has instigated that change through a number of innovations, from training with the Royal Marines (which included private conversations between individual players and former serving officers who had suffered life-changing injuries for a sense of perspective on pressure), working with psychologist Dr. Pippa Grange, who encouraged the players to use their phones less in camps and interact with each other more.
Personal letters from Southgate were left in the players’ rooms while singer Ed Sheeran performed for the players at a barbecue held at the team’s St George’s Park base during Euro 2020 as Southgate redefined the tournament experience.
And then there’s penalties. England have won just two of the nine shootouts they have been involved with; a scar on the heart of a nation. Among the alterations Southgate made, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was encouraged to jump and touch the crossbar before every penalty he faced to make the goal look smaller. Players practiced at the end of intensive sessions to recreate the “heavy legs” feel of a shootout following 120 minutes including extra time and, in general, they were encouraged to slow down the act of taking a penalty, having been shown data which suggested that England, to their detriment, were among the quickest.
Southgate learned from coaches and leaders outside of football. Some came to him for advice and one of those was Gregg Berhalter when he took charge of the USMNT four years ago.
“Initially, Gregg reached out to me after 2018,” said Southgate. “We met in London, I really enjoyed his company and we had a good discussion about coaching. He asked me a few things about how I’d approached things with the national team but you could see he was smart, he was intelligent, he had a very clear idea about how he wanted his team to play, good coaching background.
“I’ve seen the evolution of the team in that period he has been in charge. I know like all national coaches he’ll be getting some stick at home but I think that’s just the way it goes. We’ve met a few times since, although I’d have to say our conversations have dried up a bit in the last few months, understandably. But he’s a good guy and I think he’s done a really good job.”
England manager Gareth Southgate gives his thoughts on Christian Pulisic as a player ahead of the World Cup in Qatar.
England face the U.S. in their second Group B game, after Iran and before Wales, and the question is whether Southgate can find the innovations once again to leave this present poor run behind them. Or perhaps the question is whether Southgate should in fact redefine his relationship with risk, not be so influenced by avoiding the pitfalls of the past and instead focus on the possibilities this current exciting and dynamic group of players can create?
There is little time to work with his chosen squad of 26, given the Premier League halts on Nov. 14, as England assemble at St George’s Park in full the next day and then fly to Qatar on Tuesday.
“That’s got to be an exciting period where we are talking about players getting their suits, having their photos done, that transition from the club world where their heads will still be really — they could have a big game on the Sunday that’s a difficult result for them,” Southgate said.
“So, getting back into feeling excitement for the World Cup now, ‘OK, we can park that for a few weeks,’ and then when we land in Qatar, we’ve got to get the physical preparation right because our players will be on the back of a very intense period with midweek matches for the previous seven or eight weeks and there’s tactical preparation that has to be achieved, so it is a shame because the longer you have with the players, the more the relationships and the fluency of the team improves.”
Southgate has a contract until 2024, but a poor showing in Qatar could force a rethink. Some believe he may opt to walk away. The man himself insists there is no minimum threshold that must be passed.
“To be fair, the first tournament, our internal target was to win a knockout game because we hadn’t won one for 10 years,” he said. “Of course, the external view of what success might look like is changing all the time because of the two tournaments we’ve had.
“But I’ve been involved as a player in a tournament where we went to a semifinal, but also a tournament where we went out in the second round and people actually felt that the second round achievement was a really good one at the time. I’ve been at other tournaments where the team has got to a quarterfinal and that’s been seen as a disappointment so I don’t think it is quite as simple as saying ‘if we reach round X, everybody will be happy and it’s onward march.’
“There’s a lot more that we have to take into consideration: the emotion around the team, the sentiment around the team. But what I am looking forward to is trying to take the country on another journey. We’ve had two unbelievable rides in the World Cup and the Euros which has really brought people together and I think people are excited for another World Cup.
“They’re slightly wondering what it’s going to be like, not in the beer gardens but sat with the log fires on chucking beer inside. There maybe won’t be as much beer thrown! We’ll have to see but those nights bring England fans together, families together and they are the great things that live in my mind as a kid of watching those big England nights. We’ve got the opportunity to do that again.”
Nine years ago, former FA chairman Greg Dyke infamously installed a countdown clock to the tournament in Qatar setting a long-term goal to win the tournament. It became a source of ridicule to Dyke’s successor, Greg Clarke, but contrary to some reports, the clock still exists at St George’s Park. For Southgate, the ticking must feel like it is getting louder.