Don’t let fear and negativity dictate
When Southgate held court with a group of journalists after England’s shattering World Cup quarter-final defeat against France, he spoke about feeling “conflicted” as to whether to continue. He cited the principal cause: “The night at Wolves.” The team’s 4-0 defeat by Hungary at Molineux in June was a horrible low. The venom of the crowd shocked Southgate and the Football Association and it led him to think the World Cup in Qatar would be his last dance. Southgate always reads the room. He had also said he would not outstay his welcome. He worried he was approaching that point. But during his soul‑searching since the France game last Saturday, Southgate surely reminded himself of how he has approached adversity. In 2016, the prospect of a baying mob and personal upset had led him to turn down the England job. He went on to accept it after Sam Allardyce’s departure and he did so with the words of a close friend in mind. Chris Coleman, his former Crystal Palace teammate, had felt his confidence dented by a dismissal at club level. As Southgate had. But Coleman still stepped up to enjoy success with Wales. Southgate watched Coleman giving a victorious post-match interview. “Chris spelled it out very simply: ‘Don’t be frightened of going for things in life,’” Southgate said. “It felt like he was talking directly to me.” The sentiment retains its resonance.
Focus primarily on the positive drivers
Angry fans are one thing, a serious thing – even if it is true that a section of the England support start halfway up the wall because it is quicker that way for them to hit the roof. But Southgate has had to evaluate what he has in his corner and that begins with the backing of the FA, led by the chief executive, Mark Bullingham. The FA extended Southgate’s contract in November of last year until December 2024 for a reason; it hugely values his work – both the results and how he has transformed the culture around the squad. It was never going to flip after a disappointing result. That counts for a lot. Ditto the support of the squad, even if it becomes more of a factor when a manager does not have it. Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Declan Rice spoke strongly after the France game about how they wanted Southgate to stay; how they believed they were still on the right track with him. Many other players feel the same way. Southgate loves the spirit of the group, which he has fostered so expertly. Meanwhile, what the Sun did on Monday morning was an instructive sample of the feeling in the media. The tabloid splashed its front page with a story about how the players and fans were “begging” Southgate to continue. He is sensitive to what the newspapers say. Finally, there is no doubt that the France result was received differently to the penalty shootout defeat against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, mainly because of Southgate’s positive 4-3-3 system and how his team dominated the ball. He knows many fair‑minded supporters are with him.
What did Southgate’s future look like elsewhere?
The short answer is that wherever Southgate ended up, he would not have got to work with Rice, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden. The youthful core of his England team is a tantalising prospect for the European Championship in Germany. They will benefit from the experience and ultimate heartbreak at this World Cup. Southgate had already seen Rice and Saka excel at the previous European Championship but Bellingham’s emergence in Qatar was a gamechanger, emboldening the manager to ditch his back three and go with the 4‑3‑3, which he has maintained is his preferred formation. After a frustrating Euros, Foden also showed his class. The team were clearly better in Qatar than they were at the last tournament, even if they did not go as far, with the belief much stronger. Southgate is not generally a person to see greener grass elsewhere. Furthermore, the question as to which Premier League clubs would offer him an opportunity before, say, the start of the 2023-24 season was legitimate.
Southgate’s selection for the next tournament
A failing of many international managers, perhaps because of the limited time with which they are able to work with the players, is a reluctance to make changes to the team. They stick with what they know, especially when the players have taken them to a certain level of achievement. It feels fair to ask whether Jordan Henderson will still be able to bring the energy to the midfield in Germany, when he will turn 34, and there will doubtless be yet more debate over the need for a pacier central defender, keeping the spotlight on Maguire despite his broadly decent showings here. Higher calibre back-up for Kane would not go amiss. But the reality is that the time is short before Germany and, at this distance, there do not seem to be many players that are knocking down Southgate’s door from the Under-21s. The players he omitted at the last from his squad for Qatar included Marc Guéhi, Fikayo Tomori, James Ward-Prowse, Jarrod Bowen, Tammy Abraham and Ivan Toney. It could be a case of Southgate finessing what he has. He will hope that Kalvin Phillips will have more football behind him and that Reece James is fit.
The FA’s relief is overwhelming
Before we know it, England will begin their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign. Their group is tougher than normal: Italy, Ukraine, North Macedonia and only one minnow in Malta. The opening assignment is the most difficult: Italy in Naples on 23 March. They face Ukraine at home three days later. The FA had contingencies in place for Southgate leaving, with it understood that Bullingham would have been open to a foreign candidate. He would have had to have been, with such a small field of English possibilities. Eddie Howe and Graham Potter are perhaps the only two and they are not inclined to leave Newcastle and Chelsea respectively. It is unclear whether Southgate considered the hole in which his departure would have placed the FA. The governing body left him alone after the France game, giving him the space he needed. At the start of last week, it did not envisage hearing anything definitive before Christmas. The confirmation that has now come is the best present it could have wished for.