Gareth Southgate is not a risk-taker but he is ideal for this England team | Barney Ronay

Southgate has proven to be a master of managing expectation and criticism of his methods evokes memories of Alf Ramsey

We. Want. Goals. It is easy to forget that when England won their only international trophy they did so against an early chorus of unease about the “negative” tactics of a manager preoccupied with the solidity of his wing-clipped team.

One match report of England’s opening 0-0 against Uruguay in 1966 recorded that the writer began to drift off into a kind of dream state as the ball was shuttled about in aimless patterns. Does this, by any chance, sound a little familiar?

By the end of that game the crowd were openly chanting for action, attack, goals. And against Mexico they got one, a beauty scored by Bobby Charlton. But England’s run to the final was still an act of minimalist control from a team defined by the exclusion, not the accommodation, of some fine attacking players.

There was no bending with the wind on that occasion, no attempt to entertain outside the pursuit of victory. Even in the moment of triumph Alf Ramsey sat glued to his bench, frowning out at the Wembley turf like an Edwardian station master distracted, vaguely, by some larking boys on the platform steps.

What does this have to do with the European Championship, the continued trials of Gareth and the delicate interaction of promise and expectation? What does England of the deep sepia past have to do with England of the urgent digital present? Who knows. But it promises to be a memorable summer either way.

As of Wednesday night England have completed their last meaningful obstacle before the summer’s finals. In outline the Qatar 2022 qualification triple-header was triumphantly negotiated, with nine points harvested from games against San Marino, Albania and Poland, nine goals scored and one conceded.

There were no red cards, no injuries and no issues of morale. Even as they produced 30 minutes of congealment in the second half against beta-version Poland, England were able to demonstrate resilience in their late comeback.

Harry Kane scored his first England goals since November 2019. Raheem Sterling bundled his way back to form through sheer hit-and-miss bloody‑mindedness. Jordan Pickford became a more obvious fit by not playing a single minute.

Jack Grealish lost very little by sitting out the kind of possession‑heavy games he would have been expected to dominate, and in which the midfield lacked a player of his waspish craft. Twelve weeks out it is easy to see the selection, shape and tempo England will play in their three group games in June against strong but far from terrifying opponents.

And yet, of course, this is England, a place where all sporting endeavour must come irradiated with impossible expectation; and where attempts to beat the best teams in the world must always be shot through with an undeniably compelling mix of unearned exceptionalism and tearful premature disappointment.

Harry Kane converts a penalty against Poland.
Harry Kane converts a penalty against Poland. Photograph: Andy Hooper/NMC Pool

Every England manager faces negativity. The path from waistcoated reverence to unrest and disillusion is well travelled. We aren’t quite there yet with Southgate, but it is startling how easily the gains of an unexpectedly fun World Cup, the Nations League final stages and 37 goals in subsequent qualification have been replaced by a gathering skein of doubt.

The chief charge against England’s manager is that he is blessed with a wealth of attacking talent but is too defensive in his tactics to make full use of it. Riches are being squandered. And England is bowing its knee to undue caution.

This may be true to some extent. Southgate has never made a case for himself as a state-of-the-art attacking coach. His England team are not going to win games in that way. But as the noises off‑pitch gather strength it is worth restating the obvious.

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Southgate is an excellent England manager. He is in many ways an ideal England manager. He took a soul-sick team and transformed it into an object of pride and fond summer memories, an act of organisation and perception-management as much as tactical coaching, but a remarkable feat all the same.

That success in Russia was about managing traditional inflamed expectation as much as anything else – and it is this element that seems to have got away from him of late. Perhaps another series of sombre press conferences is in order, with Southgate standing there looking gaunt and bearded, a hollow-eyed frontiersmen preacher talking about humility, small steps and making full use of dead-ball opportunities.

In the post-Russia years Southgate has negotiated a uniquely fraught political atmosphere with dignity, eloquence and pride. The England football team has become an exemplar of unity and positive messages on issues that have left discord in other parts of public life. This should not be underplayed. The England football manager is also, in a sense, the nation’s PE teacher. Southgate has played this part brilliantly.

The other part of the job is to promote talent. Southgate has been accused of lacking teeth but he is thrillingly ruthless when it comes to funnelling in new players, blooding teenagers and cutting away the dead wood. There is mobility here, a summit-point for footballers in every division, and a sense they will be given a fair crack when they get there. Again, this matters.

Meanwhile, in elite competitions his record is as good as anyone bar oiled, stiff, chain-smoking Alf. Again that old foe, deluded expectation, enters the picture. Forget the hype, turn down the volume on the Premier League carousel: the fact is this team contains no genuine A-list Ballon d’Or-level players.

Kane, the team’s current star, plays in the Europa League: not a reflection of his talent, but a fact nonetheless. Sterling and Phil Foden are regulars at the champions-elect. But none of the most recent squad have won the Champions League. Why would anyone assume that they must take the game to, and expect to beat, Europe’s elite?

And yet this is still a strong England team, with a chance of going toe-to-toe with anyone they face this summer. The level is good. The team is functional. In reality criticism of Southgate’s tactics boils down to dancing on the head of a pin, and to that familiar pre-tournament England status-anxiety.

Is Reece James better than Kyle Walker (probably but Walker has his qualities too)? Should Trent Alexander-Arnold be in this squad (probably yes, but also probably no)? Is it a good idea to play lots of attacking footballers and try to make the team fit in around them? Definitely not.

The only real questions are things such as the makeup of his midfield pivot, with the idea Jordan Henderson may bring a little more drive. Southgate could play at least one winger as opposed to full-backs in his 3-4-3 formation. Will Grealish get the nod ahead of Marcus Rashford? Probably not, but both are very good players. These are small details. And nothing is being betrayed here. Other nations also have talented players too. Not all of them can play.

Southgate may be a defensive stylist, but this is not the time to grouse or tinker or gainsay his methods. This England iteration deserves another testing ground, one that will most likely come down to two high-stakes knockout games away from Wembley in late June and early July. Hold steady. And believe in Gareth.


Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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