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A Coaching View - Is Southgate the Man for England?

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

A Coaching View - Is Southgate the Man for England?
A Coaching View - Is Gareth Southgate the Man for England?

While England may have arrived in Qatar under something of a cloud after their recent UEFA Nations League form, their stunning 6-2 win over Iran in their World Cup opener has done much to brighten fans’ outlook.

Before this tournament, of course, the side fell agonisingly short of winning the Euro 2020 final at Wembley, being edged out by Italy after a tense penalty shootout. This followed England’s extra-time semi-final to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup, which represented their best performance on the biggest stage since 1990.

Notwithstanding the side’s superb start in the Middle East, however, manager Gareth Southgate’s star has dimmed since the final of the Euros, following a disastrous UEFA Nations League campaign and continued scrutiny of his tactics. So, is he doomed to be replaced after Qatar 2022, or will he at least see out the remainder of his contract?

What’s Southgate’s Contract Situation?

At present, Southgate’s contract is set to expire in December 2024, which in theory means he would also take charge throughout the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign and the tournament itself in Germany.

However, there have already been calls for his head this summer, after a disastrous UEFA Nations League A campaign that saw England go winless in six matches. They also lost 4-0 at home against Hungary at Molineux, finishing with just three points from 18 and ultimately being relegated to the tournament’s second tier.

This has caused Southgate, who is already a conservative manager at heart, to become even more defensive in his tactical setup too, with the Three Lions having returned to playing five at the back in recent matches (much to the chagrin of pundits and reporters alike).

The issue here is not so much the system, but Southgate’s use of players within his preferred formation. For example, England deployed a wingback formation intuitively and offensively at the 2018 World Cup, with roving midfielders Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli operating centrally in front of Jordan Henderson as a single pivot.

This created tactical flexibility and options in the final third, whereas Southgate’s recent line-ups, have resembled a more rigid 3-4-3 in attack (becoming a deep-lying, 5-4-1 when England are out of possession).

Does Southgate Remain ‘the Man’ for England?

While Southgate is clearly looking for defensive stability ahead of the World Cup after the Three Lions’ worst run of form since 1992, England’s recent performances have been devoid of attacking flair and largely built on the notion of ceding possession and territory while looking to counterattack.

This is hardly helped by the sheer number of defensive players that are often on the pitch, of course, which makes it incredibly difficult to structure and build attacks while arguably failing to make use of incredible attacking talent like Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, and Mason Mount.

There’s a clear conundrum here; as while England fans would prefer to see flair players like Grealish and Foden starting in the final third and helping to dominate possession high up the park, there’s little point if this doesn’t tie into Southgate’s strengths and he’s unable to create any kind of workable balance between defence and attack.

This means that the manager must be allowed to choose his own formation and style of play, before picking the players that best suit this system (and the opposition) and optimise England’s chances of doing well under Southgate.

The Last Word

Ultimately, it’s hard to see England bettering their achievement in 2018, with the Three Lions benefitting from a favourable draw in Russia and progressing despite losing against every highly-ranked nation that they played (Belgium twice and Croatia).

Arguably, Germany was the only top-tier nation that England beat in the Euros, with Italy proving too durable and streetwise in a final that the Three Lions initially dominated.

This is unlikely to change in Qatar, especially if Southgate maintains a reactive tactical approach and is unable to field skillful and game-changing players like Foden from the start.

Even though the manager surprised many by fielding a 4-3-3 against Iran, for example, Grealish, Foden, and Maddison started from the bench, while it’s likely that Southgate will be more conservative in his approach against better opposition.

If this prediction does turn out to be true and England struggle to progress beyond the quarterfinals, Southgate’s tenure may come to a natural conclusion long before his contract draws to a close.

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