Always leave them wanting more. Big luck. No one ever really wanted much more than one England Soccer manager. Such is the fundamental nature of the work, from the early hug to the howling and bellowing of the extended endgame; to be England manager is to act as a kind of public outrage, a witch-dunk, a wicker-waist man burning. Come here to mourn and foam over the state of England. In bad times and – it turns out – in good ones too.
Right now, there’s really only two ways out of this thing. Walk out in a haze of well-deserved abuse; or walk out in a haze of undeserved abuse. With England’s World Cup exit stamped and processed Gareth Southgate at least has the opportunity right now to take the second of those.
And it can still happen. A departure on his terms, without needing to muster his internal energies for Germany 2024 or return to a Wembley stadium where he was mocked three months ago might well seem a little more appealing.
Honestly, who could blame him? The last six years have been truly impressive work. They are England’s best team of the last half century. None of these facts are disputable based on the actual evidence. And yet Southgate’s abuse, rejection of his work, his patience and his common sense in the role, now borders on the bizarre.
Fair enough from the general public, who can say what they want about it. But it is something to be regretted by those in the media who have simply taken the opportunity to play the gallery or grind a personal axe, adding another cynical and divisive note to the public discourse.
Who could blame the England manager if he walks away from this? Sometimes it feels like the question isn’t whether Southgate deserves to continue as England manager, but whether English football, or at least its perpetually rabid periphery, deserves to keep him.
Southgate looked rather calm on Saturday night inside the plastic-coated catacombs of Al Bayt Stadium, home of England’s energetic and engaging final fight at Qatar 2022. There were no jerks, no signs of exhaustion or despair. He seemed, frankly, okay with things.
Like it should be. The defeat at Al Khor was that rare thing, a largely flawless outing. It was a close game against slightly superior opponents; and for the neutral an uplifting world Cup spectacle.
This will disappoint those who wish to find Albion’s outrage, betrayal and all, who will instinctively demand an investigation (an investigation requires a corpse: nothing is dead here).
France did not play well. As L’Équipe said, they played below themselves. But the brains of the team were enough to get them going.
They survived England’s best periods, were able to react and fight because they basically have very good players in all positions, a team that combines to a rare degree athleticism, technique and game intelligence.
It is not a coincidence. France has been the dominant power in football for the last quarter century. France have played in five of the last 12 World Cup and European Championship finals, have the best player in the world and the best academy system. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re just a chapter title, that there’s someone else in the room with more main character energy.
Good points for England: they had a well-established plan for Kylian Mbappé. They came to a stronger and dominated midfield in the second half, a complete reversal of the pattern of recent tournaments and a note of progress that deserves praise. Their best player skied a penalty that would have deserved a forced overtime. Only the most committed negative take – the Southgate truthers, the Anti-Gaxxers, those for whom anything but undisputed English success is a perversion of the natural order – could find glaring trouble with the details here.
There were, of course, parts that could be tweaked. Perhaps Southgate should have even obeyed his more cautious long-range instincts and sought control of a back three. Did he listen to the voices? Never, never listen to voices.
Was Jordan Henderson really ready to start so many games in such a short time? Jürgen Klopp has him on strict rotation at Liverpool.
Phil Foden could have gone out a little earlier when it was clear it wasn’t his night. Bringing in Raheem Sterling was pure misguided loyalty. Sterling hadn’t practiced. Others had.
And yet… It’s small beer. You don’t have to study football history (although for some it seems it might help) to put this into context. With the defeats of Germany, Iceland, Uruguay and Italy, there was a sense of a system that had lost its meaning, of top-down inconsistency. It’s not the same thing. England are now a working machine, an entity with substance, leadership, internal communication, a way of playing and being. This has largely been the work of Southgate. It directly feeds the coherence of England, the sense of a happy unity. Legacy isn’t always all pots.
So why would he leave now? Partly because there is always a time to leave and six years is a long time. Also, despite all the negativity, it would be an unconditionally honorable discharge at this point. Look back at the names, the aging cliches, and the fact is, only three people were really successful in this job.
Alf Ramsey won a World Cup. Terry Venables had a good euro then left – it always seems weird – to spend more time with his court business. Southgate have appeared in three tournaments and led England to semi-finals, finals and now quarter-finals. Bobby Robson had more bottoms and also nice tops. Everyone else on this list is just paddling to stay afloat, the guardians of public rage, the men in a hurry, a grimace in a tracksuit.
And now we have this, the man with the suit and zipped golf top, an England manager who will now be looking as methodically as ever at the costs and benefits of staying on for Germany 2024.
There is surgery needed, especially on the back. England need an improved centre-half with a turn of speed. England need another central midfielder and a real reinforcement from Harry Kane. England may also want to look at another goalkeeper at some point. Seven players on the Al Bayt pitch were also mainstays five years ago in Russia.
Does Southgate have the appetite for this to work? Would another voice get more, with an opportunity instead to ensure that what he leaves behind is a solid foundation rather than a rebuilding project? Specifically, when does unnecessary hostility begin to degrade one’s ability to do the job, or even just enjoy it? Here is a thought. England have even improved since last summer. This team, with this midfielderwould probably win this final of the European Championship.
But imagine how much safer – 10%? 5%? – they could have been with more support, with an intellectually honest assessment of progress, instead of this sub-chorus of incoherent anger? Get booed. Defense of the manager. Justify yourself in public. These things all take their toll.
Qatar 2022 is over for England. There will, of course, be rage, anger. But sometimes losing to the best team in the world is just that.