Ah, international break my old friend – how are you?
Well, if you are England – not that well, right?
England did what England do in Italy and failed to win in the UEFA Nations League which means (thumbs quickly through the rulebook that has gathered a lot of dust) that they are relegated into Group B, apparently.
Does that matter? Possibly. Probably not. I don’t know. What I do know is that England kick off their World Cup campaign with only another 90 minutes of football (which no doubt has been and gone by the time you read this) in front of them. And people are panicking, I mean, they are really panicking.
It happens to all of them in the end – England managers get booed, vilified in the press and hounded out the door (or the FA knifes them in the back, or in some cases both). Admittedly, that is because almost all of them did anything worth writing home about – even Sir Alf Ramsey got sacked and you may have heard he won the World Cup 56 years ago. That said, by the time he went he and his side were very much past their sell-by-date and too much loyalty had been extended.
Gareth Southgate is the man who has taken England closest to winning something since – two penalty kicks short of winning Euro 2020 at Wembley in the summer of 2021. Yet, that counts for nothing right now – in the eyes of many – as England are worryingly out of form.
Southgate is getting booed. The knives are out in the media. The World Cup gets underway in November. It all feels very England. Actually, let’s rephrase that. It all feels very England before Gareth.
Southgate, of course, is now being held by the footballing standards he has taken the team to. Before Gareth, we were a bit of a laughing stock again – Uncle Roy had overseen us being knocked out by Iceland and Big Sham preferred a pint of wine and a chinwag rather than managing his country. Gareth fixed all that, made the shirt “lighter” to wear and got us somewhere playing his type of football.
Of course, his type of football is not always pleasing on the eye – a lot of it is about staying in games, not getting overrun, nicking a goal or three from set-pieces and progressing deep into tournaments without setting the world alight. And it has worked. We qualify, with ease. Under Southgate we’ve got to a World Cup semi-final and the Euros final. And yet, everyone is panicking because we’ve been a bit rubbish in this Nations League thing which is (to the larger footballing nation, sorry Scotland fans) nothing more than glorified friendly football because we’re all going to qualify for the major tournaments anyway (unless you are Italy, that is).
Does losing to Italy and being relegated mean we are not going to get out of our World Cup group? Of course not. Does it mean we are going to sail through our group into the knockout stages with minimal fuss? Probably not that either. Is all this overreaction just a bit over the top? 100%.
Is Harry Maguire horrendously out of form and a bit of a liability? Yes. But he was going into last summer too, and he got into the team of the tournament by the end. Are we a little under-strength at left-back? Indeed we are, but we got to a World Cup semi-final with Ashley Young playing there for crying out loud.
Are Reece James, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount all totally out of form? They are, but they have just over a month of working with Graham Potter to go and all that could change.
Is Kyle Walker a bit too erratic? Yes, but he is also lightning quick and that is pretty useful.
And what are the actual alternatives? Everyone says pick Tomori or Guehi or anyone other than Maguire. Surely there is some value in a player who knows what tournament football is about rather than throwing in a complete newbie who has barely played for the team let alone in the biggest tournament in the world? Especially in a defensive position where you really should have fewer wildcard last-minute picks.
Liverpool fans will argue Trent over James all day long, but both are pretty rubbish for England and picking one over the other won’t suddenly mean we’ll lift the trophy in December.
Southgate won’t drop Sterling? Maybe – but he didn’t drop him ahead of the Euros when he was in worse form than now and he did OK, no.
Would I love to live in the perfect world where we play 4-3-3, get all the creative talent on the pitch and watch them destroy all in front of them? Definitely – but football isn’t like that. That incredible football Pep and Jurgen tend to serve up? It takes hours on the training field, intricate patterns of play, repetition, repetition and more repetition. You don’t get that when you are England manager – and Southgate is right to observe that tournaments tend to get won by teams who approach them like England have approached the last two tournaments.
If Southgate is insisting on three at the back, I’d actually like him to revert a little bit more to the World Cup approach where we had three in midfield with Dele Alli in there – no, not him as he is rubbish now but someone else. We do get a bit overrun in the middle of the park which makes Kalvin Phillips being injured very, very annoying. I just hope we don’t go all Gareth Barry in 2010 and take him if he is not ready and then pin all our hopes on him fixing the midfield.
Gareth is not the best manager in the world – we know that. Tactically, he isn’t amazing in-game – he’s not Terry Venables or even Glenn Hoddle on that score. But, he has created the best culture around the team since Venables – the players want to play for England again, which hasn’t been the case. Even the Golden Generation weren’t all committed to it, really.
Look, if England stink Qatar out Southgate is going to leave anyway. If England do well, I suspect he’ll call it a day as he is conscious of sticking around when he is no longer wanted. England won’t win the World Cup. They were never likely to anyway. But if we can go deep into the tournament and flirt with it briefly, that will still be a massive achievement and something we will all remember.
Just get off Southgate’s back and remember the good he has done.
And, if we have beaten Germany at Wembley before you read this you’ll wonder what on Earth I am going on about…