Gareth Southgate has a non-stop battle with English delusions | England


Wwelcome to the checkout. Global sport has spent much of the past two years in a state of jet lag, consumed by bubbles and firebreaks, by dates that aren’t really dates, events that seem to be happening in the wrong timeline. Well, here comes the midpoint: Qatar 2022, the only non-negotiable one, the fixed point around which this state of flux revolves.

Look at the watch in your pocket, still set to Standard Tournament Time, and it’s actually April. The World Cup is – cabin crew, landing seats – in less than two months. And the lead-in kicks off this week with a round of Nations League matches, the first steps to a final in Doha on December 18. At the end of that, red-eyed and jittery, the season is free to stumble back through arrivals and straight to the Christmas calendar.


For England, that run starts on Friday against Italy in Milan, followed by Germany’s visit to Wembley three days later. It’s a delightful-looking double-headed and an unusually urgent prospect on two fronts. Firstly, as a last chance to settle personnel and tactics questions for a World Cup that many people, or at least many Englishmen, think Gareth Southgate’s team should be one of the favorites to win.

And second, this is the beginning of a broader reckoning for Gareth’s age. It’s been six years now, spread over two tournaments, one of which was a plastic plague-ridden thing that started with a fudge and ended in a poisonous hangover.

At that time the England team has been reinvented, overlionized and elevated to unprecedented peaks of (non-trophy) achievement; but also haunted by a strange sense of anger and discontent. The next 12 weeks can decide which way this will go. Southgate has said he will no longer be welcome. And it’s always a little later than you think.

At that point, it’s time to dust off some comforting familiar questions. Is England especially good? What can we reasonably expect – that word is the key – from this team? And how disturbing is the noise (because there is always noise) around it?

As always the answers are related. Early on Tuesday morning, a national radio station or anything short of winning the World Cup must be considered a failure for England, who have won one tournament in 72 years of trying. hmm. Good question. Let’s break those down, shall we.

England are capable of reaching a quarter-final, with more than that a bonus. But two things will have to happen. First, they need to turn off the ambient noise. And this is at least familiar territory. In many ways Southgate’s time has been defined by the incessant struggle with English delusions, English exceptionalism, the self-sabotage of unrealistic English expectations.

Bobby Moore wins the 1966 World Cup: England's only tournament win in 72 years of trying.
Bobby Moore wins the 1966 World Cup: England’s only tournament win in 72 years of trying. Photo: PA Images

He has ever won this battle with his smartest trick, the ability to turn weaknesses into strengths. This is true on a tactical level. The England he inherited could not hold the ball and were weak in central defence. Solution: play seven defenders, hold the ball deep in that torso, become impenetrable.

The same has been achieved, most importantly, in terms of feelings, vibes, energy. The England he inherited was also arrogant and frail. By the time Russia came 2018, he had a team marked by his energizing, performative humility. We are the humblest. Look at our humility and trembling, for we are England, truly exceptional in our lack of exceptionality. It worked. The players felt no pressure. The country triumphantly embraced the lack of triumphalism.

English madness has caught up with this too. The thought seems to be: because we’re pretty good now, we obviously have to be the best. The success of others is a deviation, a deviation from an Arthurian state of grace. So the fact that England have good players has been translated into “an unstoppable hand of golden talent”. The rare success of reaching the Euro 2020 final has become the unforgivable failure of fail to win the Euro 2020 final.

As always, this comes back to scaling questions. England is able to beat Italy and Germany. But they are also bottom of their Nations League group without an open play goal. At the same time, the idea of ​​a crop of generational talent, which all of Europe is jealous of, does not hold. Harry Kane is England’s best player, top five in the world in his position, but trailing the elite of Mbappe-Lewandowski. Raheem Sterling, Southgate’s second most effective assault weapon, left Manchester City to start more.

None of the English goalkeepers play in the Champions League. Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka are good young players, but they are unlikely to arouse feelings of outright terror in countries that have their own broad hand of talented attackers. What other elite international teams would Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw consider starting?

Plus, in a stunning blow to the national psyche, other nations exist. The struggle to come to terms with this is in many ways the defining battleground of English football and indeed of English culture in general. There are teams that look just a level higher. Brazil has lost once since early 2020. France and Germany are strong. Would England legally expect it to beat Belgium or Portugal or Spain or Argentina?

There is an ad hominem element to this loss of scale, a personal animosity behind the urge to discuss Southgate’s solid performance as England manager. Many just don’t like his politics, his demeanor, his tactical caution. But Southgate has its flaws. There has been a lack of development, a sense that other teams have learned how to fight England’s simple game plan.

Declan Rice reacts to England's defeat in the Euro 2020 final
Declan Rice reacts to England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 final. The rare success of reaching the final has turned into the unforgivable failure of not winning. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Every major defeat in his six years – Croatia, The NetherlandsItaly (on penalties) – originated as a result of outsmarting and late overtaking in tight knockout matches, with the best midfield usually winning.

The only real point of evolution was the willingness to start the more progressive Jude Bellingham. But Bellingham is also 19 years old. And a progressive whizzy 4-3-3 lost 4-0 to Hungary last time out.

It seems almost certain that Southgate will retreat to his comfort zone, into the football of control and fine detail. England must win, or at least avoid defeat, next week, because winning was difficult. Above all, they need to create energy, feel good, find that tone of missionary zeal.

Trust the process. At this distance, it’s the only one we’re going to get. And it’s worth saying again. England have reached five semi-finals in 72 years, two of them (two out of two) under Southgate. However the current jet lagged journey ends, those achievements will remain.