Having a tube station temporarily renamed in his honour may seem like a modest consolation prize, but the England manager was just two wins away this summer from being titled Sir Gareth Southgate.
Of course, such prestige would have been relative to England’s success, but it would have also owed to the manner in which this country’s fallen in love with the most mild-mannered of unassuming heroes, still amid a 22-year search for redemption after a nightmare single kick from the penalty spot in 1996.
Waistcoats have made Southgate a cult style icon, just as his ability to so completely surpass expectations by allowing a nation accustomed to underwhelming performances to truly dream again has made him an English footballing icon too.
But with a week passing since England’s semi-final defeat to Croatia, it’s time to reflect on the Three Lions’ World Cup performances a whole. And while the drastic improvement Southgate’s inspired remains unequivocal, it would be shamefully populist to ignore the England manager’s mistakes at the tournament in Russia.
And perhaps the most distinguishable of those is how, over the course of the month-long competition, Southgate’s opinions on his strongest starting XI didn’t at all change. The line-up that beat Tunisia in the opening game was the same that lost to Croatia in the semi-finals and while consistency is beneficial to an extent at the World Cup, it can also be counter-intuitive.
Take a look at France; they started the tournament with an unconvincing 2-1 victory over Australia, but as Didier Deschamps continued to tinker with his side, he eventually unearthed a World Cup-winning formula.
It included a striker who didn’t land a shot on target for the entire tournament in Olivier Giroud and an engine room destroyer in Blaise Matuidi playing somewhere between left central midfield and the left wing, but the results speak for themselves. It seems a long time ago now but France’s original starting XI at this World Cup didn’t actually include the Chelsea supersub or the Juventus star.
Deschamps, of course, is privy to a much stronger pool of depth, so perhaps Southgate would always have struggled to naturally evolve this England side in the same way. But in any case, there were obvious problems to address – England scored the same amount of goals from open play at this World Cup as Japan and kept just one clean sheet in seven games – and the idea of maintaining the starting XI whenever possible, barring injuries and the glorified friendly against Belgium, is fundamentally flawed anyway.
You’ll struggle to find more contrasting opponents than Tunisia and Croatia – one went to a back six after scoring from the penalty spot, the other dominated possession against England to come back from a goal down – yet Southgate approached both games in exactly the same way, relying on exactly the same personnel. Adding fatigue into the equation and somewhere in the knockout stages, we should have seen far more rotation.
That failure to recognise the need to change was a worrying theme throughout the tournament, not only in terms of team selection and game-by-game tactics, but also in-game management as well. Although England’s inventive 3-1-4-2 system proved a tough riddle to solve for the vast majority of teams the Three Lions faced at the World Cup, it seemed to become dogmatic at times too.
Changes from the bench were pretty much all like-for-like, refreshing legs rather than altering the dynamics of key departments, and only for short spells at the end of games – chiefly the second half of extra time against Colombia – did Southgate noticeably restructure the formation of his side.
It harks back to perhaps Southgate’s biggest mistake leading into the tournament, a failure to utilise the warmup friendlies effectively. Yes, they increased England’s familiarity with an idiosyncratic tactical setup, but they failed to provide an obvious Plan B.
The key moment to do so was when Nigeria scored at the start of the second half, almost immediately after matching up with England at the interval, but Southgate issued no real response.
Rather than tweaking and tinkering, or perhaps even moving his pieces around into a new formation entirely, England blindly pressed on in what became an uneventful 45 minutes of both teams cancelling each other out.
Considering Nigeria are by no means the most talented side to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, that should have been enough warning for Southgate to create an alternative game-plan for when 3-1-4-2 isn’t quite working – as it didn’t for much of the semi-final against Croatia, who outnumbered and outplayed the solitary figure of Jordan Henderson in midfield.
The final overarching concern centres around probably England’s most important asset, Harry Kane. Although he won the Golden Boot, at no point during this World Cup did the Three Lions play in a way that exploited the Tottenham star’s capacity to find the net, instead focusing on his ability to bring those around him into the game.
Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard though, managed just two goals between them throughout the entire tournament.
Southgate will need to address that going forward if he’s to genuinely improve this team, but the England manager’s reaction to Kane’s fitness problems – and how he failed to make a big call on the striker – is the bigger issue. Kane didn’t look right from the latter stages of England’s first knockout game, yet played the full ninety minutes of the subsequent three matches without putting a shot on target, let alone actually scoring.
And in some ways, that eats away at the persona Southgate has created. After all, this is meant to be a manager who has absolutely no fear of the press because of what happened to him after Euro 96, and this is the same manager who made tough selection decisions insisting every player he would take to the World Cup had to be fully fit. Continuing to play Kane actively defies the latter factor and insinuates the polar opposite of the former – a selection decision made on fears of what the reaction might be if he’d left Kane out.
Of course, it should never be forgotten that the World Cup was Southgate’s first attempt at a challenge that no England manager has conquered since 1966, and had it not been for tired legs and tired minds in the second half of extra time, he would have taken the Three Lions to only their second ever World Cup final.
But just like the young Lions on the pitch who made mistakes, Southgate is a relative novice at this level of management too; youth international football just isn’t the same as the real thing. While he continues to grow this promising England side over the next four years in the hope of challenging again at Qatar 2022, it’s important for Southgate to recognise where he needs to improve as well.