Words by Joe Roberts
“Average manager masked by the best squad we’ve had in 20 years […] Any half-decent manager would have walked the Euro’s with that attacking talent.”
“Very popular opinion: Southgate is a s**t yes man manager.”
“Southgate is just about the most irritating manager England has had. Noting he does impresses me. He makes poor decisions & injures players.”
Social media can be an incredibly harsh, reactive, and toxic place. Especially on ‘football twitter’ where faceless profiles can relay uninformed or purposefully provocative opinions for likes and retweets. These tweets I found (all from the last 2-3 days as of the 17th of November following England’s 10-0 demolition of poor old San Marino) by just searching ‘Southgate’ into Twitter (I was wearing a hazmat suit for my own safety, of course) just reflects the hyper-reactivity of many England fans. Many call for Southgate’s head. Many believe England need a new manager to lead the nation into Qatar 2022. But many also forget that Southgate is the best manager England has had since Alf Ramsey who left in 1974, both in terms of win percentage and achievements. With two major international tournaments at the helm of the Three Lions, one World Cup semi-final and a Euros final under his waistcoat, England has not seen this type of consecutive and consistent success in their history. In an age of intense reactivity and impatience in football and in light of Southgate’s recent contract extension as England manager, Gareth Southgate deserves nothing less than praise and admiration for the job he has done with the England national team.
One criticism levied against Southgate is that the competition he’s faced in international competitions haven’t been a true challenge. The likes of Columbia and Sweden are obviously lesser footballing sides to the likes of England as shown on the FIFA International Rankings. However, this criticism is not held against the likes of Italy in the 2006 World Cup, who faced much weaker sides than England faced in 2018, Australia and Ukraine in the Round of 16 and Quarters respectively. Also, the likes of Spain in 2010, whose only real challenge throughout the whole tournament (excluding the final) was a relatively weak Portugal side whose only major players were Ronaldo, Deco and Pepe. This is the nature of knock-out tournaments – you can only play and beat who you are drawn against. Many past Euros and World Cup winners have had relatively easy routes to the final before facing a true challenge on the biggest stage in sports. Southgate in the World Cup only lost to Croatia (with the exception of the relatively inconsequential match against Belgium in the group stages and the 3rd place play-off match), a generational Croatian team with the soon-to-be Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric in the side. England played well that match and there is no shame in losing to another very good side, naturally just disappointment. It becomes very clear that this criticism against Southgate falls flat as many other competition winners faced very similar routes to finals with much better teams. Italia 90 is often hailed as England’s greatest international achievement outside of ’66 and they also reached the semi-finals too (facing Belgium and Cameroon before being knocked out in the semi-finals) – so why is Southgate criticised for achieving the same thing?
Statistically, Southgate has the third-best win percentage of any England manager in history. The top of the list is Sam Allardyce, with a whopping single 1-0 win against Slovakia. So Big Sam realistically is out of this equation. Above Southgate is Fabio Capello with a win percentage of 66.7%, Southgate just slightly below him with 64.7%. Capello played 26 fewer matches and achieved nothing in terms of international accolades. The only manager who beats Southgate in terms of success as an England manager is the legendary Alf Ramsey. I am not arguing for a second that Southgate surpasses Ramsey in terms of achievements of legacy at this point, but Southgate comes in as second by a long way. Other notable managers are Sven-Göran Eriksson who led England to three consecutive international quarterfinals between 2002-2006 with a win percentage of 59.7% (this with the likes of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and so on…) and Bobby Robson who lead England to two World cup quarterfinals in ’86 and ’90 with a win percentage of 49.5%. Other than Sir Alf, Southgate clearly stands head and shoulders above previous England managers in terms of win percentage and international tournament achievements.
Furthermore, many claim that Southgate should have achieved more with the squad and players he has. While achieving a semi-final and final in international tournaments should be regarded as a success in and of itself, this England squad is filled with potential. Almost all the players haven’t reached their peak and theoretically will only get better. The likes of Phil Foden and Mason Mount have been touted as two of the highest potential midfielders in the world. Young defenders such as Reece James and Alexander-Arnold, 21 and 23 respectively, are arguably performing for their clubs to a world-class standard. Also attacking talent such as Saka and Abraham are still very young and have a lot more to offer. England also has a lot of periphery talent, not quite in the team yet but are seemingly heading that way. The likes of Crystal Palace duo Conor Gallagher and Eberechi Eze are considered incredibly promising, with Gallagher making his debut against San Marino and Eze being considered for the Euro 2020 shortlist before his Achilles injury in May. All this without even mentioning the likes of Smith-Rowe, Jude Bellingham, or Aaron Ramsdale. Furthermore, the current ‘prime’ players like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Stones, Maguire and so on are still relatively young have certainly have another two international tournaments at least before they’d consider retirement. Compare Southgate’s players and options here and compare the current set-up to that of the 2006 World Cup. Eriksson had at his disposal the likes of Prime Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, considered possibly the two best centre backs of the Premier League era, David Beckham, Champions League winner Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, again considered two of the best Premier League Era midfielders and attacking options including a young Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch and Joe Cole. On the face of it, it can be argued strongly that Sven’s team is better than any of Southgate’s squads and thus should go much deeper in a tournament. This 2006 team were knocked out in the quarter-finals on penalties while Southgate’s 2018 squad (which was much worse than the current England squad) reached the Semis. If Sven’s team is the benchmark for how successful highly talented England squads should perform, Southgate’s teams excel this massively.
Club football tribalism seems to have crawled its way to international football. While criticism of the England team has always been heard, this has been when there were genuine and sizeable issues with the set-up, with frequent criticism of underperformance and misuse of players. Since Southgate took charge, England has reached a new era of development, success, hope and optimism which hasn’t been seen for generations.