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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Is Gareth Southgate still the right man to lead England to World Cup glory?

Three goals in 12 minutes did a lot to ease the pressure on Gareth Southgate. Until then, England had produced another underwhelming performance, this time against Germany who had a 2-0 lead with just 20 minutes left of Monday’s UEFA Nations League fixture at Wembley. By full-time, the two rivals had shared six goals in an enthralling 3-3 draw.

Even still, Southgate will face questions over his stewardship of the England national team in the build-up to the 2022 World Cup in November. Rather than vindicate the 52-year-old, many see England’s fight back against Germany as proof of why his conservative approach is the wrong one for the group of players he has.

Southgate might point to the success he has enjoyed at the last two major tournaments as justification for his continued commitment to footballing conservatism. England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020 by maintaining their structure and making the most of opportunities on the break.

Now, though, England’s squad lends itself to a more expansive approach. There are questions over a number of key defenders including Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and John Stones, while the emergence of Jude Bellingham as one of the best youngsters in Europe has changed the profile of Southgate’s midfield unit.

Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice started most matches for England at Euro 2020. This made the Three Lions difficult to play through, but it denied them creativity in possession. Bellingham was used alongside Rice against Germany, but this requires that the more attack-minded midfielder to get back when England are out of possession.

Bellingham can conduct attacks from deep, as he demonstrated in the second half of Monday’s match against Germany. It’s no coincidence that Mason Mount and Bukayo Saka made an impression off the bench after Southgate released the brake on his team. There was more fluidity in the final third as Germany struggled to cope with the numbers attacking them.

As a tactician, Southgate has been questioned more than once over the course of his England tenure. His greatest success has been in the way he has created a healthy environment for his players. It used to be the case that players dreaded England duty. Now, it’s often where they play their best soccer.

It is therefore understandable that Southgate wants to show loyalty to his players. There is, however, a line where loyalty becomes blind and that certainly seems to be the case with Maguire. The 29-year-old is no longer a first team figure for Manchester United and made two bad mistakes that led to goals in the 3-3 draw against Germany.

What’s more, England have better options in central defence. Fikayo Tomori, for example, is an important member of an AC Milan team that won the Serie A title last season and is now playing in the Champions League. Tomori, however, wasn’t even included in Southgate’s matchday squad for the Germany match. The exclusion of Trent Alexander-Arnold was also confusing to many.

Tournament soccer might suit England, but there will be a lot on the line for Southgate at the 2022 World Cup. Despite some recent successes, there is a growing sense that the Three Lions would achieve even more with a different manager. A disappointing showing in Qatar would surely prompt a change in the dugout for England.

“We need to stay calm,” said Southgate. “It is the message that we have to stick to what we are doing. We believe in what we are doing and I think the players took that on board and recognised that we are only a few months from the World Cup. We can talk about team spirit when things are going well but the true test is in adversity.”

Finding a replacement for Southgate won’t be easy, if it comes to it. Eddie Howe and Graham Potter were both mentioned as potential England managers of the future, but now find themselves in Premier League jobs. Mauricio Pochettino was spotted at Wembley for Monday’s match against Germany, but the Argentine is thought to be keen on another club position.

For the time being, England must continue with Southgate in the hope that he can turn around the national team’s fortunes at the 2022 World Cup. The Three Lions exceeded pre-tournament predictions at the last World Cup in Russia. With the right blend of teamsheet and tactics, surely their performances in Qatar could follow this precedent.

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