Southgate’s England revolution shouldn’t be overlooked just because it’s dull

Southgate’s England revolution shouldn’t be overlooked just because it’s dull

England have been playing international football for 152 years, but it may be wrong to throw it back that far. They could have ventured to World Cups before World War 2 but, in their arrogance and isolationism, chose not to. But they first played in a tournament in 1950, 74 years ago.

Since then, there were four semi-finals: 1966, 1968 (in a four-team tournament), 1990 and 1996, only two of them on home soil. Then came the Southgate years and there have been three more. They are coming at three-year intervals: 2018, 2021 (in the delayed Euro 2020) and now 2024.

Maybe England are living in the golden years, even if they don’t know it. They have ploughed the most prosaic path possible to the semi-finals of Euro 2024, but they are there. Gareth Southgate’s three semi-finals put him ahead of Alf Ramsey, with two, Bobby Robson and Terry Venables, who reached one apiece.

The rest – including managers as decorated at club level as Fabio Capello, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Don Revie – are on zero. Two of Southgate’s semi-finals will be abroad, as many as England had experienced in their history when he was appointed in 2016; Ramsey and Robson had one each. They have never reached a final on foreign soil.

So when Southgate spoke after the quarter-final win over Switzerland about being “ridiculed” and “questioned beyond belief”, he had a point. Perhaps, in an age of short attention spans, longevity brings ennui; in a time of overreaction, underwhelming performances from teams who look less than the sums of their considerable parts brings outrage. Yet disparaging England’s most consistent manager has become a strange national pastime, notable for the warped way many are desperate to be offended by an inoffensive man.

Southgate seems to have united various England groups, whereas their predecessors could look fractured and unhappy. Maybe it is a sign of the times that even unifying figures are deemed divisive by the wider world.

There is a legitimate strand to the criticism. This has been Southgate’s least impressive progress to the last four. In 2018, he smashed through a glass ceiling for a team who had not won a quarter-final since he was a young centre-back. In 2021, he had a tougher group, with Croatia, Czech Republic and Scotland, and more fearsome opponents in the last 16, in Germany. In each of his three previous tournaments, England may not have always played sparkling football, but there was an evident clarity of thought, the sense a plan was being implemented by players who knew their duties.

England have not shown such cohesion in Germany.

Southgate dishes out his tactical instructions (REUTERS)

The head coach has worked his way through three very different midfield partners to Declan Rice. He has, a suspension for Marc Guehi aside, persisted with the same 10 others even if the lack of chemistry has made it seem less a case of strategy than of hoping. His apparent passivity paid off against Slovakia when he didn’t take Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane off, and both ended up scoring.

He has not answered criticisms about his in-game management; there are others with a more intuitive feel for a game, who can play slicker football, who stand for a style of play. Yet Southgate’s attention to detail was reflected in a penalty shootout triumph against Switzerland, his determination to create a happier camp in the way the divisions of the past are replaced by the sight of fringe figures being given and relishing such a centrality that they scored three of the five spot kicks.

And over four tournaments, the only team to eliminate England before the semi-finals are France, themselves the most consistent team of their era. Perhaps England have become Germany, just without the trophies. And yes, that is a significant difference. There is a case that it would be preferable to be the modern Italy, winning Euro 2020 even while failing to qualify for the World Cups that sandwiched it. But consistent achievement is a feat in itself.

If England don’t win Euro 2024, if Southgate’s last game is either a semi-final against Netherlands or a final with France or Spain, it creates alternatives scenarios. Maybe another manager could build on the platform he has provided, adding better football and silverware. Or possibly England relapse: either to the days when they could not win a quarter-final or the time when they could not even get to one.

Do you want these moments or not? (PA Wire)

There is a notion Southgate is holding England back. Time may be the ultimate arbiter of that but the advantages England have include many they have often possessed: a large country with a deep talent pool, a strong domestic league, players accustomed to competing at the business end of European club competitions.

The disadvantages are familiar, too: injuries to key players, positions where there are a lack of alternatives, club managers who omit English footballers and build around foreign talent.

In relatively normal circumstances, Southgate has reached relatively abnormal levels, often by doing the obvious of winning the winnable games. It scarcely sounds revelatory yet in its own way, it has been revolutionary. And if he is approaching his endgame, there is the possibility the age of Southgate will forever stand out in the history of a team whose only glimpse of the semi-finals usually comes on television.