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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barney Ronay in Doha

The real question is: does English football deserve Gareth Southgate?

Gareth Southgate on the pitch.
Gareth Southgate said he needed time to consider his future following England’s exit from the World Cup. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Always leave them wanting more. Fat chance. Nobody has ever really wanted much more of an England football manager. Such is the basic nature of the job, from the early embrace to the howls and bellows of the extended endgame; to be England manager is to act as a kind of public outrage service, a witch-dunking, a burning of the waistcoated wicker man. Come here to wail and froth about the state of England. In bad times and – it turns out – in good ones, too.

By now there are really only two ways out of this thing. Exit in a haze of well-earned abuse; or exit in a haze of undeserved abuse. With England’s World Cup exit stamped and processed Gareth Southgate does at least have the option right now to take the second of these.

And it may yet come to pass. Departure on his own terms, without the need to regather his internal energies for Germany 2024 or to return to a Wembley Stadium where he was jeered three months ago might just come to seem a bit more attractive.

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Frankly, who could blame him? The past six years have been a genuinely impressive body of work. This is the best England team of the last half‑century. Neither of these facts is contestable on the actual evidence. And yet the abuse of Southgate, the dismissal of his work, of his patience and good sense in the role, is by now verging on the bizarre.

Fair enough from the general public, who can say whatever they like about this stuff. But it is something to be regretted from those within the media who have simply taken an opportunity to play to the gallery or to grind a personal axe, adding another cynical and divisive note to the public discourse.

Who could blame England’s manager if he walks away from this? At times it feels as though the question is not whether Southgate deserves to continue as England manager, but whether English football, or at least its perpetually enraged periphery, deserves to keep him.

Southgate looked pretty calm on Saturday night inside the plasticised catacombs of Al Bayt Stadium, venue for England’s energetic and engaging last stand at Qatar 2022. There was no snippiness, no signs of exhaustion or desperation. He looked, frankly, OK with things.

As he should. Defeat in Al Khor was that rare thing, a largely blameless exit. This was a close game against marginally superior opponents; and for the neutral an exhilarating World Cup spectacle.

This will disappoint those who wish to find outrage, the betrayal of Albion and all the rest, who will reflexively demand an inquest (an inquest requires a corpse: nothing died here).

France did not play well. As L’Équipe put it, they performed below themselves. But the brain of the team was enough to drag them through.

They survived England’s better periods, were able to respond and fight back because they basically have very good players in every position, a squad that combines athleticism, technique and game intelligence to a rare degree.

Harry Kane celebrates his equaliser against France with his England teammates.
England pushed France all the way during a dramatic quarter-final, deservedly levelling through Harry Kane’s penalty. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This is no accident. France are the dominant football power of the last quarter‑century. France have contested five of the past 12 World Cup and European Championship finals, have the best player in the world and have the best academy system. Sometimes you just have to accept that you are simply a chapter heading, that there is someone else in the room with a greater Main Character Energy.

Good points for England: they had a well-worked plan for Kylian Mbappé. They came on stronger and dominated midfield in the second half, a complete reversal of the pattern of recent tournaments, and a note of progress that deserves praise. Their best player skied a penalty that would have deservedly forced extra-time. Only the most committed negative take – the Southgate truthers, the Anti‑Gaxxers, those for whom anything but uncontested English success is a perversion of the natural order – could find any glaring issues with the details here.

There were, of course, parts that could be finessed. Perhaps Southgate should even have obeyed his more cautious long‑term instincts and sought the control of a back three. Did he listen to the voices? Never, ever listen to the voices.

Was Jordan Henderson really ready to start so many games in a short period of time? Jürgen Klopp has him on strict rotation at Liverpool.

Phil Foden might have come off a little earlier when it was clear this was not his night. Bringing on Raheem Sterling was outright mistaken loyalty. Sterling had not trained. Others had.

And yet … This is small beer. It is not necessary to study football history (although for some, it seems, it might help) to put this in context. With the defeats by Germany, Iceland, Uruguay and Italy there was a sense of system that had lost the run of itself, of incoherence from the top down. This is not that same thing. England is now a functioning machine, an entity with substance, leadership, internal communication, a way of playing and being. This has been to a great extent Southgate’s work. It feeds directly into England’s coherence, the sense of a happy unit. Legacy isn’t always just pots.

So why would he leave now? Partly because there is always a moment to leave and six years is a long time. Plus for all the negativity, it would be an unconditionally honourable discharge at this stage. Look back across the names, the ageing mugshots and the fact is only three people have ever really succeeded in this job.

Alf Ramsey won a World Cup. Terry Venables had a good Euros then left – this still seems weird – to spend more time with his court cases. Southgate has been to three tournaments and taken England to a semi-final, a final and now a quarter‑final. Bobby Robson had more lows and also some fine highs. Everyone else on that list is basically just paddling to stay afloat, keepers of the public rage, pressed men, a grimace in a tracksuit.

And now we have this, the man with the suit and the zip-up golf top, an England manager who will now consider as methodically as ever the costs and benefits of staying for Germany 2024.

There is some surgery needed, most notably at the back. England need an upgraded centre‑half with a turn of speed. England need another central midfielder and some genuine Harry Kane backup. England may also want to look at another goalkeeper at some point. Seven players on the pitch at Al Bayt were also mainstays five years ago in Russia.

Does Southgate have the appetite to make this work? Would another voice get more, with an opportunity instead to ensure what he leaves is a solid foundation rather than a rebuild project? More to the point, when does the needless hostility begin to degrade his ability to do the job, or indeed simply to enjoy it? Here’s a thought. England have improved even since last summer. This team, with this midfield, would probably win that European Championship final.

But imagine how much more certain – 10%? 5%? – they might have been with greater support, with an intellectually honest assessment of the progress made, instead of that sub-chorus of incoherent anger? Being booed. Defending the manager. Justifying yourself in public. These things all take their toll.

Qatar 2022 is done for England. There will, of course, be some rage, some upset. But sometimes defeat against the world’s best team is simply that.

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