After Euro 96 Gareth Southgate joined esteemed players Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle by becoming the 3rd wheel in the infamous Pizza Hut advert. Missing that Penalty was the most famous thing he had accomplished to that point. Obviously in the worst way possible. It must be one of the most difficult things to deal with in professional sport when the faith of the country is on your shoulders and you buckle under the most intense pressure.
Sport in general has more hard luck stories than triumphs. Players can spend their careers chasing glory with many only seeing a handful of good memories. Some can be more lucky when it comes to success. Redemption in sport though can be a very memorable and satisfying thing. A heavyweight boxer regaining his crown. A golfer winning a major in the twilight of his career. Gareth Southgate has a chance this year to redeem his worst moment in sport.
When you look back at the England managers of yesteryear there are not a lot of them that can be held in high regard. Mainly due to the fact that they haven’t delivered when it matters most. Bobby Robson came close with a gifted team. Venables almost had the country united. Then Sven, Fabio and McClaren wasted what was hailed as the golden generation. 117 Capped Steven Gerard quoted to have said “We needed a manager that was bigger than the players”. Then enter Gareth Southgate.
The English press is not one that forgives failure. Likened to a shark that senses blood they patiently wait for their moment to feed. Glenn Hoddle found criticism for using a faith healer in their disastrous 1998 campaign. Sam Allardyce was eaten alive when he was allegedly involved in a transfer scandal. This paved the way for Southgate to enter the role after some success with the U21 setup.
The pressure that comes with the job is the same for any manager that dares to take the role. To relieve that pressure that has built up since 1966, their last major win at a tournament, they must find a way to be victorious. Scrutiny is at it’s peak with the culture that is England’s hype for each tournament they enter. Despite not having the calibre of Capello, the scheming of Sven or the charisma of a Venables, Southgate seems to be making all the right calls.
Learning from past mistakes
England have never had so much top talent in the Premier League before. The richest league in the world pays the biggest wages and therefore attracts the biggest stars. The English players in these teams are household names and that is the pivotal issue with the national team. Everyone has an opinion of who should start and in the past this has become an issue for previous managers.
The golden generation in 2004 was the biggest lesson indeed. Steven Gerard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes somehow found themselves unable to gel in a midfield that was unable to accommodate all three of them. It would have been sacrilege to have dropped one of them for a Nicky Butt. Although that was exactly what was needed. Sven Goran Ericksson was the culprit on this occasion and soon lost his job due to it.
Southgate has refused to be embroiled in his team selections. He showed that he would not be drawn into a battle of wills when he omitted Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold after the gifted fullback suffered a dip in form. Then following on from that he has no issues in leaving Jadon Sancho on the bench alongside the highly rated Jack Grealish. If that wasn’t enough he baffled many with his selection of Trippier at left back in the opening game of the Tournament. Leaving recent Premier League team of the season Luke Shaw out with Champions League winner Ben Chilwell.
Up top Southgate refused to budge when it came to options cleverly using Kane and Sterling in every game but rotating Foden, Saka and Grealish into the remaining spaces. Past memories of Wayne Rooney and David Beckham also spring to mind when previous managers sweated on their fitness at big tournaments only to see if backfire spectacularly. Southgate took risks with Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson with both carrying injuries that prematurely ended their seasons. Neither were rushed back before time and this too is paying off with both looking match ready with every passing game.
A place in history awaits
The stars are aligning for Southgate. A straightforward group with a dilemma of meeting Portugal/Germany or France seemed unavoidable with many suggesting England would prefer to finish 2nd. The Germany game was a massive boost mentally to be able to dispose of their old rivals. The draw now couldn’t have been any kinder being the opposite side of France/Spain/Belgium and Italy.
England now face Denmark in the semi finals. Hardly a draw that would strike the fear into most top nations. If they are to overcome the Danes they will face either Italy or Spain in the final. Surely if you are sitting in a dressing room with the talent that England have at their disposal you would be feeling confident.
Stick with the plan
Southgate has thus far stuck to a simple formula. Win by pragmatism. He leaves two sitting holding midfielders to stifle the opposition. The opponents are also permitted an equal share of possession but he also knows that with Sterling/Kane they will always create a single chance over 90 mins. It is likened to watching Leicester City play in the Premier League. England simply have too much quality up front for most national sides.
If things are not going as well as he would like there are some very impressive options to come off the bench. Attacking wise he can call on Grealish/Sancho/Foden to change the style of game. Southgate has also built his side to be able to switch to a back three of four seamlessly.
We have not seen Plan B however. Impressive as it is to not concede in 5 straight games we have yet to see how pragmatic they can be if they go a goal behind. Defencive fullbacks can be swapped out for attacking wingbacks. Defencive midfielders could if need be sacrificed for more attacking playmakers. Unless the Danes score of course, we might not see what his Plan B will be. For now Plan A has worked to the letter.
It’s coming home
So is this going to be the most straight forward campaign ending a 65 year drought? Two more clean sheets, Sterling and Kane with the goals and Southgate becomes a hero. I would be surprised if it was that easy. Semi finals have the tendency to be a little more drama packed. Teams can almost taste the Final and this brings an extra adrenaline fueled edge.
I am expecting England to overcome Denmark. I expect the Danes though to put up a furious fight. Galvanised by the Christian Ericksen incident and I’d expect an emotional game from them. They have been playing the same style for a few tournaments now and it should be noted they haven’t beaten by England in the Nations League.
England will have to be careful they do not believe the hype for this encounter. The Danes will not go down without a fight. The potential Final with Spain/Italy will be a different affair with both of these sides busting at the seams with talented players. Make no doubt about it England if they are to return triumphant will have to produce two very impressive performances.
It might be coming home … but it’s not quite there yet.