The first thing to say is that Gareth Southgate hasn’t overstayed his welcome. This honourable, dignified and smart coach is not to blame for England last heartbreaking defeat in the World Cup. There can be no recriminations, no anger, no calls for fundamental reform; all there is, in the cold light of day, is the bitterness of knowing that England faced the world champions, used the right tactics and failed only because the nerve of Harry Kane betrayed him at the worst possible moment.
It hurts. “Maybe it was because England were very good,” said Didier Deschamps when asked why France spent so much of the game on the back foot. The France coach had no illusions. Deschamps knew how hard England had run against the defending champions. Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham were irrepressible in attack, Declan Rice remarkable in midfield, Kyle Walker tireless against Kylian Mbappé. It was different from the typical England outing, a world apart from defeats by Croatia in 2018 and Italy in Euro 2020 finaland only Southgate’s most blinded critics could attempt to dismantle that performance.
But it’s not easy to be rational after seeing England’s hopes of winning the world Cup pull away when Kane’s second penalty flew over the crossbar. Later, when Southgate appeared for his post-match performance, he looked and sounded close to tears. “Going back takes a lot of energy,” the 52-year-old said as his thoughts turned to his future. “You have to make sure you’re ready for this.”
Southgate looked ready to go. He did this for six years and had three crushing disappointments. The Football Association don’t want him gone, especially as there is no obvious successor, but how much does Southgate have left in the tank? Is it really fair to expect him to still be in charge when Euro 2024 qualifying begins in March? Maybe it’s time to get back to club football.
Southgate, whose contract runs until December 2024, has said it does not want to stay longer than its host after the penalty shoot-out loss in the Euro 2020 final. Patience has worn thin since then; the discontent grew during England’s dismal Nations League campaign. Still, hopefully Southgate ignores the noise. He should listen to Kane, Rice and Harry Maguire calling him to stay. These players love Southgate. There’s a reason the mood around camp was so positive throughout the tournament and, once the dust settles, the FA will be desperate for Southgate to realize that their maturing side’s efforts against France are proof that he can lead them to glory at the Euros.
Of course, there will be people waiting to dismiss Southgate as just another FA suit. Only two things can be true at the same time. Southgate is good at dealing with difficult issues outside of football. He is also England’s best manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. Just remember where they were after the loss to Iceland at Euro 2016 followed by Sam Allardyce’s pint of wine humiliation. The shirt couldn’t have weighed more.
Southgate changed everything. He took away the fear of playing for England, but he also lifted an underperforming team. The idea that he is a lucky manager who has always enjoyed easy draws is the usual English arrogance. In 2018 Southgate went to the World Cup with one game but an inexperienced squad. England, who had not won a knockout game since 2006, had no divine right to reach the last four by beating Colombia and Sweden.
If they exceeded expectations, it was up to Southgate to cover their side’s weaknesses by moving to three at the back and focusing on set pieces; that their limits were finally revealed by Croatia was no big surprise.
Of course, Southgate could have reacted more quickly to the takeover of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic for Croatia. He made mistakes. At Euro 2020 he took England to their first final in 55 years but was slow to respond to Italy’s fightback. Southgate, who had returned to a back five, should have been bolder. Bringing in Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho just before the shootout was a mistake.
Likewise, Southgate was one kick away from winning the European Championship. Football is random in its cruelty. He is not perfect, but the tactical preparation he undertakes with his staff is part of a training culture. England was ready for France. Southgate assured that they were not inferior. He trained them well. It’s not his fault that Harry Maguire lost Olivier Giroud to the winner.
The counter is that Maguire shouldn’t have started after losing his place at Manchester United. But is there a better England centre-back? Southgate tends to make big calls well. He backed Raheem Sterling at the Euros but rightly dropped the winger here. The bet to start Saka in place of Rashford against Senegal paid off. More depth in attack gave Southgate more freedom. There is an idea that he finally lifted the handbrake, allowing his players to express themselves, but the reality is that the attack has improved mainly because the midfield has become more balanced. Too careful? Only if you haven’t paid any attention to England’s performance in Qatar.
It’s time for Southgate to move on. Bellingham is 19 years old. Saka is 21, Phil Foden is 22. Rice, Mason Mount and Reece James are 23 years old. Aaron Ramsdale, 24, will be pushing Jordan Pickford for the No. 1 spot, and there’s plenty of young talent waiting to burst. the scene. This cycle is not over. Why leave now?
The FA needs to restrain him. No one is better qualified to lead this team. The two best English candidates, Eddie Howe and Graham Potter, are unavailable. There are whispers of Thomas Tuchel or Mauricio Pochettino, but the mere whiff of a celebrity date recalls the excesses of the Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello eras, of a hypothesis of which there is only one missing pinch of magic from afar, and above all an attempt to cover up the failure to produce more local coaches by throwing money at the problem.
This would go against the calm of the past six years. The FA have invested in St George’s Park, in coaching development, and Southgate has been integral to improving the academies. Southgate was crucial before becoming manager and he remains an asset now. He shouldn’t ask us for more time. We should beg him to stay.