England boss Gareth Southgate has defied expectations since taking over as national team boss. The former Middlesbrough and England Under 21 manager has done much more than ‘steady the ship’ since Sam Allardyce’s ill-fated short stint came to an end and is rightly earning plaudits for his stewardship as the World Cup approaches.
There is – of course – time for all that to change once the games kick off, and the tabloids might already have their cruelly Photoshopped front pages ready and waiting. For now, though, let’s at least reflect on Southgate’s smartest moves…
- Dropping Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere: How many times in the past have England managers seemed too easily swayed by reputations? Southgate could easily have picked Joe Hart just because he’s been the nation’s number one at the last three international tournaments, but his form for West Ham this season has been a long way short of the standard required. Hart’s high profile mistake against Wales in Euro 2016 also suggests that he can no longer be seen as a safe bet at this level. Likewise, Wilshere has a lot of friends in the media who continue to promote his talents. Yet, despite a return to the Arsenal side, concerns over form and fitness meant Southgate stood firm.
- Smart use of friendlies: Since qualifying at a canter – something fans too easily take for granted – England have tested themselves well in friendly fixtures. Games against Germany, Brazil, Holland and Italy have allowed them to fine-tune their formation against high-quality opponents – and none of those games ended in defeat. Games against Nigeria and Costa Rica provided a useful warm-up for the Tunisia and Panama games to come – and Southgate rotated smartly to ensure all of his squad was given a chance to shine. The result is that he can now call on a squad in which he has a couple of good options for almost every position on the pitch.
- Three at the back: One of the things Southgate refined in those games was his defensive shape. While England have high profile matchwinners in the final third, it’s fair to say that their defensive personnel isn’t of the same calibre. To counter that – and to make the team more solid – Southgate has switched to three central defenders. Not only that but by using Kyle Walker in the back three (and in the selection of Jordan Pickford in goal) he’s found a way to ensure the defence is comfortable on the ball to build the play from the back. The result of that means that this England side are fairly comfortable in possession (not always something that can be said of its predecessors) and look solid defensively. In a nation still overly-obsessed with the 4-4-2 days of the past, it’s been refreshing to see a coach move to a shape more befitting the modern era.
- Captain Kane: Yes, we’re over-concerned about who wears the armband in this country, but the choice of Harry Kane as captain was another smart choice from Southgate. A quiet, unassuming character, he’s a likeable ambassador for a likeable squad. Not only that, but Kane seems to have relished the responsibility and now has eight goals in his last seven games in an England shirt. Looking at the odds for the World Cup, William Hill predicts that Kane is equal sixth favourite to be player of the tournament and seventh favourite to win the golden boot. He’s easily England’s best hope for winning either accolade, and any move to get more out of him is to be applauded.
- Expectation management: On the eve of every international tournament, England managers are asked if they think their side can win. In some respects, it’s an impossible question. Say no and you look unambitious. Say yes and you risk unleashing a wave of hype and hope that is impossible to live up to. Southgate has spoken sensibly and honestly about his squad’s talents – managing expectations as well as he can. He’s also spoken intelligently about issues such as racism, acquitting himself well under the spotlight of the nation’s press.
Gareth Southgate’s England career might well be about to go the way of so many of his predecessors. For now, at least, he deserves credit for an excellent start in the role in the run up to Russia.