Gareth Southgate’s England all but confirmed their qualification to the 2022 Qatar World Cup on Friday with a 5-0 win over Albania. The victory put the Three Lions three points clear of Poland in second spot and they now need only a draw in the last group game against minnows San Marino which should not be a hard ask.
It is an oft-understated achievement given that the likes of Italy and Netherlands have failed to qualify for the World Cup in recent years. Even in this edition, only France and Belgium have secured qualification going into the final match week.
One game to go. pic.twitter.com/ZlHVussa2Z
— England (@England) November 12, 2021
Despite the relative comfort of England’s campaign and their good work in the last Euros and World Cup, there remain question marks over the pedigree of Gareth Southgate as a manager. A lot of people believe that Southgate is holding back an England side that is filled with exciting and talented players.
ENGLAND UNDER SOUTHGATE
On the surface, England are doing just fine. Since Southgate took over in 2016, they reached the 2018 World Cup semifinal, were placed third in the 2019 Nations League and only a penalty shootout defeat prevented them from getting their hands on the Euro trophy this summer.
The side seems to be on the edge of greatness with the likes of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Luke Shaw getting ready to enter their prime years amongst other stars. There is also a healthy balance in the squad captain Harry Kane and Liverpool and Manchester United captains Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire providing the sound head on shoulders aspect to the team.
The Three Lions have also been remarkably stable over the past few years. The core has remained the same and Southgate has stuck with ‘his men’ despite ups and downs in club level form and this strategy has paid dividends. England under Southgate are experiencing their most successful period in history, bar the triumph of 1966.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH SOUTHGATE’S ENGLAND
Despite their many credentials, the England manager’s position never seems to be secure and locked. And the doubters are not without reason. The Three Lions often play a drab brand of football which is viewed as unnecessarily conservative given the wealth of attacking talent they have at their disposal.
— Kalvin Phillips (@Kalvinphillips) September 2, 2021
The formation preferred by Southgate flickers between a 3-5-2, 3-4-3, and 3-4-1-2. At their worst. England have upto eight defensive minded players with the midfield usually comprising two of Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips. In a nutshell, Southgate opts to set up his England side in the mould of Dyche’s Burnley while having the firepower closer to Guardiola’s Man City.
Southgate may have a lot of critics but the English FA have made the decision to stick to their guns and (rightfully) back him at least until the 2022 World Cup. An outlandish collapse notwithstanding, he should continue beyond that tournament as well.
Therein lies the conundrum for England. It is near impossible that England will perform as badly under Southgate as they did under Eriksson or Capello or Hodgson. They have too much quality up front now and Southgate’s pragmatism ensures that they are stable at the back despite lower individual levels. But that is enough to get them deep into the tournament. Is it enough to win them one?
It is not too gratuitous to say that England had a favourable draw in Russia in 2018, although they maneuvered it into their favour. They had a tough group this summer in the Euros which they navigated well and their defeats of Germany and Ukraine were comprehensive but neither of their knockout scalps were particularly well-drilled.
Denmark posed them several problems in the semis, forcing the extra-time while Italy were comfortably on-top in the final. Even in the 2018 semi-final, England were considerably worse-off than their opponents.
Further, a large share of their wins, in tournaments and qualifiers alike, have come thanks to set-piece goals. England score considerably more than the average number of goals which is both a testament to Southgate’s thoroughness and also a cause for concern that these goals will eventually dry up.
— England (@England) November 14, 2021
This generation of English players deserve to win a trophy. They are not only exceptional footballers but most of them have shown great gravitas off-field as well. Southgate deserves a lot of credit for the cultural reboot he has undertaken with the national side but only time will tell if he can guide them to the peak. His good work warrants more opportunities for him but England would not want another golden generation to go to waste.
Some English fans experience a lot of schadenfreude with respect to Southgate when England fail to win big which is rather conceited, as football fan culture in England tends to be. The jury though is still out on whether Southgate is the greatest English manager since Sir Alf Ramsey or if he just happened to be in the right place in the right time.