“Pep Guardiola is the best coach in the world,” Gareth Southgate says, and it is plain the England manager has plenty of reasons to toast his Manchester City counterpart, chief among them the improvement he has overseen in Jack Grealish.
When Southgate first began to pick Grealish at the start of the 2020-21 season, the winger was not exactly known for tracking back. Not any more. Not after his move to City from Aston Villa in 2021, not after two seasons of Guardiola, this one the breakout, which has the potential to end in treble glory.
Grealish was outstanding in both legs of the Champions League semi-final victory over Real Madrid but the adjective could be applied to many more of his performances; they have been complete. “Jack has played properly I would say in this period … against Madrid with and without the ball,” Southgate says. “That wasn’t the case two and a half years ago, if I’m honest. There’s been a lot of progress.”
Southgate is in good form as he looks ahead to England’s next set of Euro 2024 qualifiers – away to Malta on 16 June and at Old Trafford against North Macedonia three days later. His only target is to win the tournament. It is that or bust, he suggests, about whether there could be a climate for him to continue in the job for the 2026 World Cup, beyond the expiry of his contract in December 2024. More on that later.
But Southgate is just as insightful when he looks back on the season, at Guardiola and many of the other managers in the Premier League, when he veers into the territory of his England successor. It is not just Grealish that Guardiola has developed at City for England. What about John Stones, who is having the season of his life? Guardiola has also brought on Kyle Walker and Phil Foden, the hope being that Kalvin Phillips can push on, too, after a difficult first campaign at the club.
“It’s the consistency of how Pep drives the team,” Southgate says. “It’s so rare that you ever see a performance from a team [of his] where you go: ‘Wow.’ The Carabao Cup defeat at Southampton was probably where you went: ‘Wow, you just don’t see this.’ That’s unbelievably hard to do in our league.
“Whatever the depth in the squad, the way he has them playing, his solutions … but it’s the constant hunger and drive. I’m a huge admirer, he knows that. I’ve told him. It’s been brilliant for our players to work with him. They have learned individually, tactically and, as much as anything, the mentality.”
It is the time of year when the individual awards are handed out; City’s Erling Haaland was given the Football Writers’ Association player of the season trophy last Thursday. So Guardiola has to be a shoo-in for the manager’s equivalent, presented by the League Managers Association at its dinner on Tuesday?
Southgate pauses. He has cast his vote, although he will not say for whom, which is understandable. But it does not sound as if it was definitely for Guardiola. “I don’t think it’s as straightforward [as that],” he says. “Unfortunately, we have to vote too early. It’s probably the same for you [football writers]. We had to vote a few weeks ago. Of course, if Pep wins two, three trophies then …
“But also I don’t think we should underestimate what [Roberto] De Zerbi has done. Mikel [Arteta] has had a great season, Eddie [Howe] has had a great season. Thomas Frank on points for pounds has got to be close to the best season. Unai [Emery] going in at Villa has done an exceptional job.
“I’m not sure I ever sit there on the night and think I’ve voted [correctly] … I’ve normally changed my mind by the time we sit down for dinner. Lots of people at both ends of the table have had exceptional seasons.”
Howe ought to be in the running to succeed Southgate – he has led Newcastle back into the Champions League – and certainly if the Football Association wanted another Englishman, although it is not a prerequisite, that would map out the succession.
Steve Cooper, who has done well to keep Nottingham Forest in the Premier League, is Welsh but he knows the FA from the inside, having managed the England Under-16s and 17s. He made it to three finals with the latter, one of them bringing glory at the Under-17 World Cup in 2017.
Southgate, who was promoted from the England Under-21s job in 2016, is interesting when he discusses the rise of Gary O’Neil at Bournemouth. Thrust into the position last August, his first as a manager, O’Neil has guided the club to top-flight safety.
“Gary is not one I’ve spoken about before but I signed him at Middlesbrough and had him for a couple of years as a player,” Southgate says. “In an understated way, he’s done a really good job in quite complicated circumstances at the start. He was always a player who I thought had that mindset to be a coach.
“His first season as a manager has reminded me a little bit of my first couple of years at Middlesbrough, where you’re right in the fire. You’re in the relegation battle but you get there. The other two [Howe and Cooper] are more obvious with what they have done, but Gary is probably one that has gone a bit under the radar.”
Back to awards. And back to the Guardiola-inspired theme of remorselessness, the quest for new ways and motivational means. It is a curiosity that Southgate’s captain, Harry Kane, has never been named as the Professional Footballers’ Association’s or Football Writers’ player of the season.
“Often the club have needed to win something that promotes the individual – not always; obviously if you’re a West Ham player …” Southgate said with a smile, referencing the writers’ choice of Scott Parker in 2010-11.
Kane has been excellent this season, scoring 30 times for Spurs, 28 of them in the league. He turns 30 in July and Southgate is convinced that Kane can thrive into his mid-30s because of his professionalism, similar to Teddy Sheringham, a striker who “wasn’t relying on speed to score goals or have an impact”.
From Southgate’s side, it is not Kane learning new things about his game, rather if he can develop his leadership. The same is true of Walker. “What else can we give them?” Southgate asks. “I think their ownership of things is an area we can push them on. Turn them into better players, whatever they might do with the rest of their lives, as well.”
Southgate has but a single wish for the next phase of his career – glory at the Euros in Germany – and, this time, it really does feel like the last dance. “We’ll have to go very, very well for that [him staying on for the next World Cup] to be a possibility in anyone’s eyes,” he says.
“That’s fair enough. My aim is to try to win the tournament and everything I do is geared around that, every conversation I have with the players. What will happen in the future … it isn’t at the forefront of my mind. But trying to win this European Championship is.”