Does England’s Belgium Defeat Mean Curtains For Gareth Southgate?
As the country that invented the sport, it’s fair to say that the England football team hasn’t won as many trophies as it ought to have done. In more than one hundred years of competitive football, the only accolade England’s national side has to its name is the World Cup of 1966, which was held in London and won at least partially because of some highly contentious refereeing decisions in the cup final. Since then, the country has bred generation after generation of ‘nearly men.’ England has reached semi-finals here and there, but never again have they made it to the final of a major football event.
For a long time, it didn’t seem that the England team was even capable of challenging for top honors, regardless of how much hype was generated on their behalf by the press. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the English press loved to wax lyrical about the country’s so-called “Golden Generation,” made up of world-class players. The abilities of those players were never in doubt. Steven Gerrard could have walked into any club team in the world during his prime, as could Chelsea’s Frank Lampard. Rio Ferdinand and John Terry were among the world’s greatest defenders. Ashley Cole was probably the very best left-back in the world. David Beckham could land a ball on a pinhead from fifty yards away. Michael Owen was as potent a goalscoring threat as you’d find anywhere on the planet. Despite all of that, the team won nothing.
Different people have different theories as to what went wrong with that England team. Some people point to Gerrard and Lampard being unable to play together in the middle of the pitch, and no manager being strong enough to drop either of them. Others – Rio Ferdinand included – say that conflicts between players that occurred at club level fractured the squad during international meetings. Perhaps it’s more likely that the old adage about online slots is true. It’s a received piece of wisdom in the gambling world that you don’t actually win anything when playing online slots by landing the best symbols on the same spin. Those symbols won’t generate any prize money if they’re not in exactly the right place, even if they’re theoretically worth huge amounts of cash. If you want to walk away from an online slots website like Kong Casino in profit, you need the most valuable symbols to line up in formation. With England, it probably wasn’t the players that were the problem – it was the positions they were placed into. Now, some fans are worried that history might be repeating itself.
Two years ago, during the World Cup of 2018, the England team performed above all expectations, reaching the semi-finals of the competition. In the process, the nation fell in love with its football team again, and likable manager Gareth Southgate became a national treasure. People enjoyed the way he seemed to put an arm around his players. They were amused by his waistcoats. They thought he was getting the best out of a young team and got behind him and his squad in a way that the public hadn’t gotten behind the side since the heady days of the 1996 European Championship tournament. It was hailed as a new dawn. Looking back on it, it may actually have been a false dawn. England came up against only two teams of a comparable quality during the tournament – Belgium and Croatia – and lost to both of them. Their path to the semi-finals wasn’t so much glorious as it was fortuitous.
Two years later, it’s another loss to Belgium that has people wondering whether Southgate is the right man for the job after all. It seems obvious to anybody with the most rudimentary grasp of football knowledge that the England team’s greatest strength is its attack. Most teams in the world would love to have options like Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, and Harry Kane available to them. Most managers would build their team around attacking options like that. Instead, Southgate’s starting eleven against Belgium included no fewer than seven defensive players, not including goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Tyrone Mings, Eric Dier, Kyle Walker, Kieron Trippier, Ben Chilwell, Declan Rice, and Jordan Henderson all started the game. Before kickoff, Southgate has spoken about England needing to “hunt down” teams like Belgium if they wanted to become the best in the world. It’s impossible to hunt down any team when eight of the eleven players on the pitch are there to protect the goal rather than attacking their opponent’s.
While throwing caution to the wind isn’t an approach that works every time – or perhaps not even most of the time – there is such a thing as playing to a team’s strengths. England does not currently have any world-class center backs at their disposal. Some would say they don’t currently have any world-class defenders at all. Starting a game with five of them on the pitch, covered by two defensive midfielders, appears to be asking for trouble. By contrast, there’s no defense in the world that wouldn’t be worried by Sancho and Grealish running at them, with Rashford and Kane waiting to be supplied in the box. England’s players are capable of great things, but they need to be played in a formation that allows them to pose a threat. All too often, Gareth Southgate’s tactics don’t appear to allow them that opportunity.
In the immediate aftermath of the game, the dreaded hashtag #SouthgateOut began to trend on Twitter. It isn’t the first time the hashtag has been used – far from it, in fact – but it’s the first time that it’s been used by so many people at the same time that it’s become a talking point for journalists. There are signs that the football-loving English public has woken up to the idea that there’s more to being an international-level manager than looking good in a waistcoat. There are also signs that those same fans have started to dread the idea of losing another potential ‘golden generation’ to poorly thought out tactics and underperformance. Because of this bad result, England can no longer qualify for the finals of the Nations League. The FA might soon have to decide whether the same person who’s responsible for that failure should have the privilege of taking the team to the European Championships next summer.