Gareth Southgate is a man that has made a career out of proving people wrong.
As a schoolboy, he was released by Southampton. He went on to play over 500 games in his career for Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough.
A right-back and central midfielder at Palace, he became a centre-half at Villa and would be capped 57 times by England. This was during an era when he had to compete with Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, Martin Keown and eventually John Terry, Jamie Carragher and Ledley King for a place in the squad.
When Southgate was given the job as England manager, he was seen as the boring, straight from corporate option, a yes man to calm the waters after the mini-crisis facing the FA after Sam Allardyce was involved in the Daily Telegraph’s “Football for Sale” corruption scandal in 2016.
Southgate, more likely to be seen sipping a pint of water than a pint of wine, has shown a passion for the England team unrivalled by his recent predecessors.
With just over three seasons in charge at Boro and a three year stint in charge of the U21s, his managerial CV was dwarfed by Sven Goran-Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello, Roy Hodgson and even “Big” Sam.
At the 2018 World Cup, Southgate brought England its best summer of football since 1996. He’s also discussed the national team’s views of the taking of the knee far better than any of those men could. I can’t quite imagine Allardyce penning the open letter to the nation that Southgate published in the Players’ Tribune
He has been repeatedly battered for setting his team up too defensively and negatively. In qualifying for the Euros, England were the joint second highest scoring nation with 37 goals. Italy, who also scored 37, played two extra games. Top scorers Belgium, who hit 40, also played two extra games and had the benefit of facing San Marino in their group.
The former Boro skipper was torn to shreds in the autumn of 2020 for persisting with Mason Mount over Jack Grealish and Declan Rice was repeatedly criticised as “offering nothing” after switching allegiance from Ireland. The childhood best mates are now crucial to Southgate’s plans, two of the first names on everybodies team sheet and Declan Rice will be captain of England one day.
The knives were already being sharpened after flat performances in the two pre-tournament friendlies with Southgate being labelled as an “idiot” and “clueless” for playing the likes of Jesse Lingard, Ben White and Ben Godfrey who were only named in the provisional squad.
5 of England’s starting XI against Croatia weren’t available for the friendlies having played in European finals in the week before the team arrived on Teesside while Ben White had to be drafted into the 26 man squad after Trent Alexander-Arnold was injured. They were *just* friendlies as well, with players focused on not getting injured after a congested domestic calendar.
And for all of the World in Motion blasting, retro shirt wearing “It’s Coming Home” fever sweeping the nation over the weekend that ramped up in the summer sun on Sunday morning, it didn’t take long for the words of encouragement for the manager to turn to “what the fuck is he playing at?!” when the team was leaked and then officially announced around dinner time.
This was not the debut of a new-look, swashbuckling first eleven crammed with young attacking talent that many had been clamouring for. This was…well it was a bit hard to understand at first.
Trippier was at left-back instead of Luke Shaw while Ben Chilwell was left out of the squad entirely. Why you can take a 26 man squad to this tournament but not have everyone available is another question entirely. Tyrone Mings, a calamity waiting to happen in the friendlies, was part of a back four. Jude Bellingham, the Bundesliga’s Newcomer of the Year, was left out to accommodate what looked like a safer, more reserved option in Kalvin Phillips.
There was also no place for Jack Grealish, the dazzling Midlands wizard, with Southgate favouring an out of form Raheem Sterling in what some called the latest in a long line of big club bias.
That Southgate’s most controversial choices were instrumental in exposing Croatia’s biggest weaknesses made England’s first ever victory in an opening game at a European Championship all the more sweeter.
Of course, the standout was Kalvin Phillips, who was the best player on the park by some distance. The Leeds midfielder snapped at, harried and disrupted the flow of a midfield packed with experience and trophies. Phillips extinguished any glimmer of a spark between Brozović, Kovačić and especially Luka Modrić.
It felt like the former Balon dOr winner barely touched the ball in the opening 20 minutes as Phillips and England pressed and swarmed the opposition like mosquitoes in the scorching sun.
However, it was going forward where England’s number 14 most caught the eye. There’s people that pay more attention to stats that will say he’s always shown this ability, but he’s always looked incredibly passive to me in an England shirt. What he does, and does very well at Leeds, isn’t his job at international level.
Yesterday, he was breaking the lines and getting ahead of Harry Kane, constantly looking for a forward pass and his quick sidestep and pass set up the only goal of the game. He was a joy to watch.
The ball Phillips played to set up the winner was to Raheem Sterling, who slotted past Livaković, wheeling away to celebrate scoring a goal at an international tournament in the stadium he has tattooed on his arm. The boy from Brent, who grew up in the shadow of Wembley, repeatedly stretched an ageing Croatia side that had no answer for his pace.
Sterling was able to get in behind the Croatian backline time and again, constantly bursting between Šime Vrsaljko who has a history of knee operations and 32 year old Domagoj Vida.
While Sterling struggled massively to live up to his reputation for Man City in the second half of the season and he isn’t as sexy as Grealish, it’s imperative that someone in the England team is able to make those runs beyond Kane when he drops into the midfield.
Both Sterling and Mason Mount benefited from the space Kane creates when he comes looking for the ball and their movement dragged the Croatian defence around, which was best highlighted by the huge gap Sterling was able to find for the goal.
The decision to pick Trippier ahead of Shaw and Chilwell, both natural left-backs coming off brilliant seasons, was perhaps Southgate’s most baffling one pre-match.
England could have benefited a couple of times by having an actual left-footed fullback on the overlap but Trippier did allow Sterling and Mount the free reign to wander as he held back and defended the left hand side. It was when Croatia were allowed time on the ball that the reason for Trippier’s inclusion became more clear.
With England smothering the middle of the park, Croatia’s only option was to attack from the flanks, with the aim being for star right-back Vrsaljko to hit crosses into Ante Rebić and Ivan Perišić. Vrsaljko, La Liga winner with Atletico Madrid this year, was particularly good at this during the 2018 World Cup.
It’s handy then that the other Atletico Madrid on the pitch was in an England shirt. Three or four times when Vrsaljko was released, Trippier waited rather than trying to immediately intercept the ball, anticipating a heavy first touch from his Atleti teammate before taking the ball off him. This led to Vrsaljko rushing his crosses or passing the ball away to a less effective crosser.
This meant Tyrone Mings reaped the benefits of the cliché “food and drink for a defender”. The big Villa man made 4 interceptions, 3 clearances and won all of his headers in a performance that went some way to calming nerves as he continues to deputise for Harry Maguire.
Of course, England’s performance against Croatia wasn’t perfect. Their terrific opening 20 minutes didn’t lead to a goal, although on another day Phil Foden’s effort would’ve nicked off the post or hit the keeper’s back to go in, while there was a definite lull in proceedings until the goal came.
They desperately need Harry Maguire back to link the defence and midfield, with neither Mings or Stones comfortable bringing the ball out of defence and Kyle Walker wasted possession. It’s a good job he took all those right-backs.
There’s also the fact that as lovely as the afterglow of an England tournament win is, it was *only* a 1-0 win which should have been two or three against a vulnerable and very beatable Croatia side. This isn’t the same team that beat us in 2018. It’s not even the same team that we overcame in the 19/20 Nations League.
They’re very much at the end of their golden period and have only won twice in their last 10. That includes drawing with Armenia and losses to Slovenia and Sweden. There will be tougher tests to come against a fired up, underrated Scottish side and the intense Czechs.
It’s in those matches, without the near 30 degree heat of yesterday that heavily affected the tempo, where Southgate will look to mix up his team and the likes of Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho will be best served in games played at a frenetic pace.
There’s also a concern that England’s potential route to the final will see them have to displace a number of the favourites – any of France, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands or Germany could lay in wait if England win the group. Hopefully, if England were to fall early to one of those superpowers, the critics of the 2018 World Cup success will be of the same opinion this time that it’s the opposition you face not where you get to that matters in a tournament.
Whatever this summer holds, how far we get or what the future holds for the young players in this squad, Gareth Southgate is the right man for the job. He’s someone that makes it easy to be proud of supporting England. He’s a genuine leader that is focused on building a culture around the national team where we can finally feel connected to the players representing us again.
Southgate you’re the one, you can prove them wrong and maybe football is coming home again.
Photo Credits: England, FA