The FA must hold on to Southgate. This cycle is not done. Why walk away now? | Jacob Steinberg

Despite World Cup heartbreak against France, nobody is better qualified to lead England into Euro 2024 than the current manager

The first thing to say is that Gareth Southgate has not outstayed his welcome. This honourable, dignified, intelligent coach is not to blame for England’s latest heartbreaking World Cup defeat. There can no be recriminations, no anger, no calls for root-and-branch reform; all there is, in the cold light of day, is the bitterness of knowing that England went toe to toe with the world champions, used the right tactics and came up short only because Harry Kane’s nerve betrayed him at the worst possible moment.

It hurts. “Maybe it was because England were very good,” Didier Deschamps said when he was asked why France spent so much of the game on the back foot. The France coach was under no illusions. Deschamps knew how close England had run the defending champions. Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham were irrepressible in attack, Declan Rice outstanding in midfield, Kyle Walker tireless against Kylian Mbappé. This was different from the typical England exit, a world apart from the defeats by Croatia in 2018 and Italy in the Euro 2020 final, and only the most blinkered of Southgate’s critics could possibly try to take this performance apart.

But it is not easy to be rational after watching England’s hopes of winning the World Cup sail 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. “To go again takes a lot of energy,” the 52‑year‑old said as thoughts turned to his future. “You have to make sure you are ready for that.”

It was a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Southgate sounded ready to walk away. He has done this for six years and has experienced three crushing disappointments. The Football Association does not want him to go, particularly 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 is time for a return to club football.

Southgate, whose contract runs until December 2024, spoke about not wanting to outstay his welcome after the penalty shootout defeat in the Euro 2020 final. Patience has run thin since then; the grumbling grew during England’s dismal Nations League campaign. Yet it is to be hoped that Southgate ignores the noise. He should listen to Kane, Rice and Harry Maguire calling for him to stay. These players love Southgate. There is a reason the mood around the camp was so positive throughout the tournament and, once the dust has settled, the FA will be desperate for Southgate to realise that his 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 a mere FA suit. Only, two things can be true at once. Southgate is good at dealing with difficult questions away from football. He is also England’s best manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. Just remember where they were after defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016 was followed by the humiliation of Sam Allardyce’s pint of wine. The shirt could not have weighed more heavily.

Southgate changed everything. He stripped away the fear of playing for England but he also lifted an underperforming team. The idea that he is a lucky coach who always enjoyed easy draws is the usual English arrogance. In 2018 Southgate went to the World Cup with a game but callow 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.

That they exceeded expectations was down to Southgate covering up his side’s weaknesses by switching to three at the back and focusing on set pieces; that their limitations were eventually exposed by Croatia was no great surprise.

Of course Southgate could have reacted quicker to Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic taking control for Croatia. He has made mistakes. At Euro 2020 he took England to their first final in 55 years, but he was slow to respond to Italy’s fightback. Southgate, who had reverted to a back five, should have been bolder. Bringing on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho just before the shootout was an error.

Equally Southgate was a 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 driven culture. England were ready for France. Southgate ensured they were not inferior. He coached them well. It is not his fault that Harry Maguire lost Olivier Giroud for the winner.

Gareth Southgate looks dejected after England’s defeat by France.
Gareth Southgate must now decide if he wants to lead England into another major tournament. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Fifa/Getty Images

The counter is that Maguire should not have started after losing his place at Manchester United. But is there a better English centre‑back out there? Southgate tends to get the big calls right. He backed Raheem Sterling at the Euros but rightly dropped the winger here. The gamble of starting Saka instead of Rashford against Senegal paid off. More depth in attack has given Southgate more freedom. There is an idea that he has finally lifted the handbrake, allowing his players to express themselves, but the reality is the attack has improved mainly because the midfield has become more balanced. Too cautious? Only if you’ve paid no attention to England’s performances in Qatar.

This is the moment for Southgate to push on. Bellingham is 19. Saka is 21, Phil Foden is 22. Rice, Mason Mount and Reece James are 23. Aaron Ramsdale, 24, will push Jordan Pickford for the No 1 spot, and there is plenty of young talent waiting to burst on to the scene. This cycle is not done. Why walk away now?

The FA must hold on to him. Nobody 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 appointment is a reminder of the excesses of the Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello eras, of an assumption the only thing missing is a sprinkling of magic from afar, and above all an attempt to cover up the failure to produce more homegrown coaches by throwing money at the problem.

It would go against the calm of the past six years. The FA has invested in St George’s Park, in developing coaches, and Southgate has been an integral part in the improvement in academies. Southgate was crucial before he became manager and he remains an asset now. He should not be asking us for more time. We should be begging him to stay.


Jacob Steinberg in Doha

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Barney Ronay

01, Apr, 2021 @5:25 PM

Article image
Gareth Southgate relishes England’s ‘biggest test’ against France
Gareth Southgate relishes England’s ‘biggest test’ against France in quarter-finals but is wary of ‘world class’ Kylian Mbappé

Jacob Steinberg at Al Bayt Stadium

04, Dec, 2022 @11:02 PM

Article image
Gareth Southgate expects ‘no complications’ over new England deal
‘Now is an appropriate time to go through everything’, said Gareth Southgate about his next contract, with the England manager expecting no friendly game before the World Cup

David Hytner

16, Nov, 2021 @10:30 PM

Article image
Southgate regrets ‘missed opportunity’ before England host Ivory Coast
Gareth Southgate said it is unfortunate that the pandemic means England will face only one non-European opponent in the year leading up to the 2022 World Cup

Nick Ames

28, Mar, 2022 @9:30 PM

Article image
England matches create lifelong memories, says Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate said England matches can create lifelong memories as his side prepare to take on San Marino at Wembley

David Hytner

24, Mar, 2021 @10:30 PM

Article image
Gareth Southgate feeling heat from England fans after Hungary debacle | David Hytner
The 4-0 home defeat in the Nations League has increased the pressure on the manager, but he retains the support of the FA

David Hytner in Doha

19, Nov, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Southgate defends Maddison World Cup call-up and dismisses ‘misconceptions’
The England manager said he had ‘no concerns’ about how the Leicester playmaker James Maddison will fit in with the squad

David Hytner

10, Nov, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
Stoking the fire: Southgate readies England to tackle Wales’ intensity
Gareth Southgate declined to comment on England being motivated by Wales’ celebrations at Euro 2016 but he is well aware of the tale

David Hytner in Doha

28, Nov, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
Southgate warns England players and families against Netflix documentary
Gareth Southgate urged England players and their families not to get involved in any fly-on-the-wall documentary films around the World Cup

Nick Ames

13, Jun, 2022 @9:30 PM

Article image
Gareth Southgate focuses on psychology to give England edge
The manager has been taking a three-pronged approach to psychological preparation for the tournament in Qatar

David Hytner in Doha

20, Nov, 2022 @10:30 PM