Mon. May 20th, 2024

Southgate’s big-game woes threaten to ruin England’s Euros.

By Sanchez Mar 26, 2024
Southgate's big-game woes threaten to ruin England's Euros.Southgate's big-game woes threaten to ruin England's Euros.

England are heading to Euro 2024 as favourites to win the competition, which is a testament to how far they’ve come since Gareth Southgate’s appointment in 2016. He has created a sense of togetherness in the squad that had seemingly been lacking for decades, eliminating the cliques formed by club team-mates while making sure the players properly acknowledge the responsibility that comes with representing their country, giving supporters reason to believe again in the process.

At the last European Championship three years ago, Southgate came within millimetres of delivering England’s first piece of silverware since 1966, and they will be motivated to take that final step this summer. But it’s the hardest one for a reason, and one that only the very best managers in the game are able to take.

For all the good work he has done since stepping into the England hot seat, Southgate still does not fall into that bracket. He is blessed with a pool of talent greater than perhaps any of his predecessors, dating all the way back to Sir Alf Ramsey, but individual brilliance won’t be enough to finally end almost 60 years of hurt.

Southgate has come up woefully short when it really matters, and his poor judgement and lack of bravery will probably lead to more heartbreak in Germany.

Damning record

England suffered their first defeat at Wembley in 21 games on Saturday, as Brazil ran out 1-0 winners in a heavyweight friendly clash thanks to a late goal from Real Madrid-bound teenager Endrick. Both teams currently sit in the top 10 of FIFA’s world rankings, at third and fifth, respectively, with Argentina, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Croatia, Italy, Portugal and Spain completing the list.

Germany are down in 16th at the time of writing, as a consequence of a turbulent transitional period, but they remain one of the most successful nations in the history of international football, and so it feels necessary to include them in any debate over Southgate’s record as England manager. He’s yet to face Argentina or Portugal, but has now played a total of 27 games against the other eight teams listed, winning on just six occasions.

He’s also posted 12 losses and nine draws, which takes away from his impressive overall win percentage at the helm of 62.6 – the second-best in England’s history (discounting Sam Allardyce’s one-game reign).

Southgate has been almost faultless against the lesser nations and the Three Lions have had no problem qualifying for major tournaments on his watch, but in the most important games, when tactical nous and man-management often prove decisive, he’s been found out time and time again.

‘Ruthlessness of football at this level’

It must be noted that Southgate was hampered by the absence of 12 first-team regulars against Brazil, including star attacking duo Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka, but their opponents didn’t come into the game in great shape either. The Selecao had lost their previous three outings in 2026 World Cup qualifying, and were also decimated by injuries, with rookie head coach Dorival Junior handing five players their debuts in his starting XI.

What followed was a tentative contest that looked very much like an experiment for both sides, and it was there to be won heading into the final 30 minutes. Brazil eventually stepped on the gas to break the deadlock, with Andreas Pereira playing a beautiful pass in behind for Vinicius Jr, who saw his shot parried by Jordan Pickford before Endrick was able to tap in the rebound from close range.

Worryingly, England always looked vulnerable at the back, and they struggled to create clear chances at the other end of the pitch, despite matching Brazil’s shot count of 14. “The difference in the end was one moment really, and that is the ruthlessness of football at this level,” Southgate told reporters after the final whistle.

It was a fair assessment from the England boss. But it’s not the first time that “one moment” has led to his team’s downfall, and it won’t be the last. Luck favours the bold, and Southgate is far too cautious in these situations. Dorival went for the victory by throwing on Endrick and Savio in the final 20 minutes, giving Brazil a timely boost in the final third, while in typical fashion, his England counterpart left his own potential gamechangers to freeze on the bench.

Poor in-game management

Southgate rang the changes in the 67th minute at Wembley, with Jude Bellingham making way for Jarrod Bowen after a frustrating evening for the Real Madrid superstar. He also brought on like-for-like replacements for Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell in the form of Lewis Dunk and Joe Gomez – who had not played for his country since 2020.

You’d be hard pressed to name three better impact players than James Maddison, Marcus Rashford and Ivan Toney, all of whom are capable of opening up defences in the blink of an eye, but Southgate just doesn’t seem to have any kind of natural instinct when it comes to in-game substitutions.

It was also another example of him waiting too long before mixing things up, which has been a running theme against world-class opposition. Against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, Italy in the Euro 2020 final and France in the 2022 World Cup quarter-finals, he didn’t make any substitutions until after the 70th minute, despite seeing England’s opponents seize control in all of those fixtures far earlier.

The 2-1 defeat against France was particularly frustrating, with Rashford not introduced until the 85th minute while Jack Grealish got just three minutes of action deep into stoppage-time. Properly utilising the bench is vital at major tournaments, especially in the tightest matches, and it’s down to the manager to spot areas to exploit and fix issues as they arise – but Southgate tends to stand still while his opposite number reacts accordingly.

Misusing Foden

Bellingham has been tipped to light up Euro 2024 after exceeding all expectations in his first season at Real Madrid, who have already seen a massive return on their initial €103 million (£88m/$110m) investment in the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder. Brazil certainly gave Bellingham the respect he deserves, jumping in to foul him at every opportunity, and he may have secretly been relieved when his number came up before the final 20 minutes of the game.

Madrid have used Bellingham in a No.10 role regularly this season, and so Southgate saw fit to do the same, but he remains at his most effective as a box-to-box midfielder – a traditional No.8 in a similar mould to Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard. Southgate’s decision to play Bellingham just behind Ollie Watkins also left Phil Foden languishing out on the right flank, where his creative genius went to waste.

As per The Telegraph, Foden has averaged 72 touches per game for Manchester City this season, but he only managed 44 over the course of the 90 minutes against Brazil, and none of them came in the penalty area. The 23-year-old was asked to work around Bellingham instead of dictating the pace of the game himself, as he does so brilliantly for his club, and it passed him by as a result.

Foden is used to rotation under Guardiola, but he has licence to operate in central positions for City, and would be a real weapon for England as a No.10. It makes little sense for Southgate to ask him to operate as an orthodox winger when he can cause so much damage on the half turn and find little pockets of space in the middle.

If England are to have any chance of winning Euro 2024, they need Foden firing on all cylinders, which he won’t be if isolated out wide. But again, it remains to be seen whether Southgate will trust the youngster to be the main man in the team, or indeed whether he even knows how to get the best out of him.

Fighting spirit

If England progress through the Euros smoothly, they will likely be on course for a semi-final meeting with France, which would give them the chance to avenge their heart-breaking World Cup defeat. That may involve having to come from behind to win, which hasn’t been a regular occurrence with Southgate on the touchline.

The Three Lions head coach has seen his team concede the first goal in matches 19 times to date, with 17 of those coming in a competitive setting. Of those 17 games, England have only managed to battle back to win on six occasions, as Southgate has been largely unable to adapt his game-plan when facing a deficit.

Teams like France are capable of exposing England’s weaknesses in defence, and they’ll make it their mission to dominate in midfield so that there is no supply to Kane. On paper, Southgate will have arguably the strongest squad at the Euros, but that will count for little if he can’t put out fires when dealt inevitable setbacks.

Southgate’s pragmatic approach has worked at times, most notably in the Euro 2020 last-16 win over Germany, when England sat back in a 5-2-3 formation and stung their arch rivals on the counter, with late goals from Raheem Sterling and Kane wrapping up a 2-0 victory. But Southgate started with Foden and Grealish on the bench that day, an overly-cautious decision that could easily have backfired had Germany scored first.

Didier Deschamps certainly won’t be having any sleepless nights over the prospect of facing England again, and few would bet against the France boss outfoxing Southgate once more if they do indeed meet in the last four.

What’s next?

England are now looking ahead to their final Euros warm-up game against Belgium, who were held to a goalless draw by Ireland at the weekend. Like Brazil, Belgium are no longer the same force of old, but it will likely be another long night for the Three Lions if Southgate doesn’t break character and let the shackles off.

“Belgium have played a different 11 probably, or close to, so they will be a bit fresher,” he told reporters after the Brazil game. “But we’re talking about a high-level game, a brilliant experience for the players. It will be a chance to see new players again and build towards the summer. I am not disappointed with the level of performance.

“I know in the end when you lose the game, there will always be a negative reaction to losing, but I thought the crowd were really with the team, seeing a lot of inexperienced players going in and doing well, so I am not down on the performance at all.”

Foden, Declan Rice and John Stones were all on the pitch when the final whistle blew at Wembley. England had an experienced core and more than enough quality in every position to beat Brazil, but ultimately came out second best.

Another defeat at the hands of Belgium wouldn’t be a disaster by any means, as all that matters is starting well when England kick-off their Euro 2024 campaign against Serbia on June 16, but it would raise even more doubts about Southgate’s credentials.

He’s earned plenty of admirers, including Manchester United, for reviving the fortunes of the national team, and few would begrudge him this final attempt at bringing football home. But if he fails again, England must look to the future with a truly elite manager, one who stands up tall on the biggest stage instead of shrinking.

By Sanchez

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