Gareth Southgate has admitted he is “conflicted” over whether to carry on as England boss – so to spare him some head-scratching, we’ve drawn up some pros and cons for his big decision.
England suffered World Cup heartbreak against France in Qatar on Saturday, going down 2-1 after Harry Kane had missed a crucial penalty with six minutes remaining as their semi-final shot evaporated.
Unlike their previous big moments under Southgate, namely the 2018 World Cup semi-final extra time defeat to Croatia and Euro 2020 final shoot-out defeat to Italy, England produced a valiant performance that was arguably worth more than they got. On another day, Kane rifles home the penalty, England go to extra time and their dominance on the night carts them into the last four.
But the words “on another day” have become synonymous with being an England fan, and under Southgate it has been no different. So is it time for the waistcoat’s finest ambassador to step down, or is he the guy to finally bring men’s football back to where it belongs: home?
WHY GARETH SOUTHGATE SHOULD STAY…
Come on, are we seriously debating this? Do you not remember Iceland? Or Bloemfontein? Or that brolly?
After England lost to a nation that could squeeze its entire population into four Wembley Stadiums at Euro 2016, and fans consoled themselves with unavoidably excellent GIFs of Roy Hodgson, and then Sam Allardyce was found guilty of ordering a pint of wine, among other things, Southgate was summoned to fix the mess. No one expected anything.
But fix it he did and within two years, he had somehow restored the trust between the supporters and players, and earned the appreciation of a media whose favourite hobby has long been composing obituaries of England managers. On his first major test in Russia, he took a talented bunch of misfits to within extra time of a World Cup final, despite the likes of Ashley Young, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard all featuring as regular starters.
Southgate has rediscovered, and maybe truly created for the first time, a feel-good vibe around the national team. That simply can’t be underestimated. You might disagree with some of his decisions on the pitch, and don’t worry we’ll get to those, but his small decisions behind the scenes have helped the players feel confident again. He has enabled their growing talent to shine.
No longer can the players be accused of being pampered or not caring, as became the ringing indictment of the Golden Generation. This group cared and the fans responded. For the first time in many supporters’ lifetimes, they had seen an England team punch above its weight. No longer was “football’s coming home” spoken in jest or misplaced optimism, it was whispered quietly because it might actually happen.
And OK, it hasn’t happened yet. But despite faltering in the big moments, this England side surely need Southgate to have another spin of the wheel. He has the full backing of this crop of players, something it’s hard to say any England manager has enjoyed since the late Bobby Robson.
Southgate has also stepped up in other arenas, notably in the fight against racism in the game and beyond, and empowered his players to do the same. He also wrote a moving open letter to England fans ahead of Euro 2020 detailing just how much the job means, further helping create a national team everyone can be proud of.
Why risk dismantling all that now, especially given the likely contenders to take over would have their own set of question marks? Would it mean as much if another manager hoisted aloft the trophy in Berlin at Euro 2024? Perhaps it would, but it’s only 18 months away and a triumph for Southgate would erase 56 years of hurt in a way that no one else could dream of.
WHY GARETH SOUTHGATE SHOULD GO…
A good rule for life is to take the opposite view of Joey Barton on everything. So given he is flying the #SouthgateOUT banner, surely it’s a pretty easy decision to want him to continue?
Only it isn’t quite that simple. Despite the glowing report above, and England enjoying deep runs at all three major tournaments under his stewardship, there is a nagging feeling that Southgate may have already taken the team as far as he can. He was the ideal candidate to help an imperfect group crying out for a cuddle; that doesn’t mean he is necessarily the man to now help (arguably) the strongest squad in international football take the final leap.
Just look at the France game. When England really needed their manager to step up, he responded by making the most bizarre decisions. There was nothing wrong with the starting XI, which refused to bow to the over-hyped threat of Kylian Mbappe, nor with keeping things as they were at 1-1. But what unfolded after Olivier Giroud had nodded home was a disaster.
England suddenly had 12 minutes to save their World Cup campaign, plus injury time. So what did Southgate do? First, he made the inexplicable call to hook the game’s best player, Bukayo Saka, and replace him with a player who had only just flown back to Qatar after an awful break-in back home. He also threw on the talented but woefully out of form Mason Mount for Jordan Henderson, the smallest of tactical tweaks when England had to go for it.
Despite his blistering form, Marcus Rashford was only introduced in the 85th minute, moments before Kane’s horror moment from the spot. Southgate only dared take off a defender in the 98th minute – “grab me a goal in 120 seconds, Jack Grealish” – and left the likes of Callum Wilson and James Maddison wondering why they had bothered coming along at all.
And this is the core problem with Southgate. Despite all his good work off the pitch and his promising team selections, his in-game decisions have been awfully conservative. England have seen numerous talented generations come and go, and it would be a crying shame if the Southgate straitjacket saw the barren run continue.
Perhaps the solution is strengthening his backroom team, ensuring he has a commanding and tactically savvy voice alongside him who can encourage him to throw caution to the wind. That is no slight on Steve Holland, a big part of the Southgate redemption arc, but clearly no one is pushing him to be bold when it matters most. If Southgate can learn to take the handbrake off at the right time, he can still be the guy England need, he’s just got to make sure he’s willing to do so before signing up for Euro 2024 and potentially beyond…