Southgate’s era may be drawing to a close, but facts have to be faced

ENGLAND’s performance against Hungary was embarrassing for the faithful that carry the cross of St. George with pride. But a downturn has been coming. Qualifying for the World Cup wasn’t very difficult for England – with the greatest respect to their opponents, Gareth Southgate’s men eased through, winning eight of their 10 games and scoring 39 goals in 10 games and conceding three. Included among their eight wins was a 4-0 thrashing of Hungary in Budapest. They finished six points ahead of second-placed Poland, hinting that after the defeat in the Euro 2020 final in London, England looked to have recovered well from the trauma of losing to Italy on penalties.

After finishing fourth in the 2018 World Cup and then runners-up in a competition in which they were de facto hosts, England might have been justified in feeling a little downcast. But these achievements really were the pinnacle of a team that was more about promise than reality. When it mattered, England didn’t have the gumption to win the key games. The players selected by Southgate had certainly revitalised the idea of the national team as property of the people, but it did not quite have what it takes to win against top opposition. The country keeps urging football to “come home”, but no matter how much lager is thrown in the air, it just doesn’t happen.

A national team doesn’t last for ever, and even though one or two players in the optimal Southgate side have a few years left of their international career, a lack of credible contenders to take over from pivotal figures like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire should be concerning the England set-up. It’s not that these players are about to hang up their international boots, but there seems to be a shortage of real alternatives. Who, for example, is Kane’s stand-in of he is injured? Tammy Abraham springs to mind, but he’s simply not in the same class and at 24, we should know all there is to know about him. Vardy is a veteran and players like Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ollie Watkins are not of the required standard. Marcus Rashford is in danger of losing his way at Manchester United. The fact is, most of the top strikers in the Premier are not English, witness Salah (Egypt), Mané (Senegal), Son (South Korea), Jota (Portugal), Zaha (Ivory Coast) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal).

It’s not just an ageing thing, either. Teams can go stale, and on the evidence of recent weeks, it does look as though this England squad has peaked and needs an overhaul. The timing could not be worse, five months until the World Cup and just two warm-ups to get it right. It’s understandable that some folk should start to panic, but sacking Southgate will not solve the problem. Right now, he needs a break as the international calendar is getting more crowded, more demanding and just serves to further exhaust the players. He may be Captain Serious and Mr. Establishment, but if nothing else, the UEFA Nations League games should demonstrate that England do not have strength-in-depth. If the fans think June 2022 has been poor, what is coming later this year could be even worse.

England may have one finger perched above the “transition” button, at just the wrong time of the cycle. It could have been different if Harry Kane had moved to Manchester City a year ago, but in the past season, we have seen the falling stock of a number of players, perhaps due to the psychological damage inflicted upon them by Euro 2020. Southgate’s record as England manager is still pretty good, a win rate of 62.2%, but it is difficult to compare this to the stats for Sir Alf Ramsey (61.1%) and Fabio Capello (66.7%).

In some respects, the England job is not about innovation, trail-blazing tactics and revolution. It is more about harnessing talent, drawing on the pool available to the manager and making the best of the job without uprooting trees. The Premier League is acknowledged as the top league in the world, therefore there should be enough oven-ready resources to build a decent side. Southgate has done that so far, but the squad that served him so well may need surgery. Has he got the replacements he needs? On the evidence of the UEFA Nations League games, the answer is probably negative.

UEFA’s Euro 2020 – soul food for the people

UEFA, in their technical review of Euro 2020, have claimed the event was “food for the soul of football”, although few would consider the events on the day of the final at Wembley were anything but that. By that time, however, the competition had established itself as a worthy month of good football and a big step towards normality.

UEFA were saying all the right things in their report, insisting it was a “fascinating tournament of great diversity”, a reflection – to some extent – of the concept of multiple locations which may have seemed inappropriate in the current climate. In Scotland, for example, 2,000 cases of covid-19 were linked to one of the Euro 2020 games.

From an entertainment perspective, Euro 2020 was a success. It was the most goal-happy European Championship with a goals-per-game rate of 2.78 – a big jump from 2016’s 2.12 and higher than any competition since the Euros were expanded to 16 teams in 1996.

Ironically, in a year in which so many goals were scored, the player of the tournament was Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Champions Italy provided five of UEFA’s team of Euro 2020, Leonardo Bonucci, Leonardo Spinazzola, Jorginho and Federico Chiesa joining Donnarumma in the line-up. England, the runners-up, provided three: Raheem Sterling, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker. 

According to UEFA, Italy were one of the few teams in Euro 2020 to play with a three-man defence. Their use of full backs like the excellent Spinazzola was very notable. The fleet-footed Italian defender recorded a sprint of 33 kilometres per hour in one game. UEFA also highlighted how traditional centre forwards found the going tough thanks to very congested penalty areas. Patrik Schick of the Czech Republic not only scored the best goal of the tournament, but impressed throughout and ended joint top scorer in terms of goals scored. Cristiano Ronaldo won the award for leading marksman, though, on account that he played fewer games than Schick.

The Czechs covered more ground than any other team, an average of 113.97 kilometres per game. Russia (112.48) and Italy (111.28) were not far behind. Pedri of Spain, one of the outstanding players of Euro 2020, covered an average of 12.69 kilometres per game, slightly more than Italy’s Jorginho (12.35) and Austrian midfielder Marcel Sabitzer (12.19). 

By possession, Spain enjoyed the highest game average, a remarkable 71.9%. The finalists, Italy and England, recorded averages of 53.7% and 50.5% respectively. 

Euro 2020 demonstrated “great tactical flexibility and high level of competiveness” which could have produced a number of different winners. From UEFA’s point of view, they must have been pleased to get the tournaments out of the way after the trials and tribulations of the pandemic. It may also have been further evidence of a resurgence in national team football. With Moscow 2018 still fresh in the memory, a World Cup that restored faith in FIFA’s flagship bun-fight, Euro 2020 was an enjoyable month of football. In an age where elite clubs are desperately trying to mould the structure of the game to their advantage, we may eventually look back on Euro 2020 as a benchmark for future major summer competitions. We wondered if spreading the love across the continent was a good idea, but it seemed to work, didn’t it?


Football Media Watch: Olympic football – consistency required?

EVEN the most devoted football fans sometimes struggle to embrace the concept of Olympic football. In Britain, it has always been a struggle – the idea of a Great Britain XI works against the desire to have independent representation within FIFA. 

In the past, it was supposed to be amateur football that appeared in the games. There was a degree of farce around that requirement as the Soviet Union and its friends sent out teams that were de facto professionals. From 1952 to 1988, the gold medals went to Hungary (three times), USSR (twice), Yugoslavia, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslavakia. The only break in the sequence was in 1984 when France were Olympic champions. There were some fine winners, however, notably Hungary’s golden team of 1952 and Poland’s 1972 line-up.

The Olympics, of course, have changed dramatically since the days when gifted gentlemen and wealthy hobbyists represented Great Britain. And since the late 1980s, football at the Olympics has certainly changed, starting with the attempt to make it a competition that allowed young professionals into the contest. We saw, in the early days of the shift, the likes of Jürgen Klinsmann, Romario, Bebeto and Ronaldo tread the boards.

Jonathan Liew of The Guardian asks if football really belongs in the modern Olympics. “Nobody really seems to know what it is: a development competition, a star vehicle, a sideshow knockabout.” The participants have varying interpretations of the importance of the Olympic football tournament. Some countries send strong squads, some send academy-orientated selections, while others even send whoever they can. 

It doesn’t help that the games this year (delayed by a year) come at a time when football schedules have been condensed and we have seen the Euros, the Copa America and the CONCACAF Gold Cup take place in the build-up. We do have to ask if Olympic football, in its current guise, is really necessary, especially when it will never be regarded as the pinnacle of the sport, which really should be a pre-requisite. 

Let’s not forget the World Cup started life as a response to the Olympic football competitions of 1924 and 1928 when Uruguay won gold both times. The appeal of Olympic football fluctuates, the crowds for 2012 in the UK were strong (average 47,660 for men, 25,423 for women), but compare the figures for the 2016 Olympics with the World Cup of 2014 (both in Brazil) – Olympic men’s football averaged 31,513, World Cup 2014, 53,592).  Conversely, in the Olympics of 2016 the women’s tournament drew an average of 24,500 compared to the last World Cup’s average of 21,800.

Britain has been absent from the last two Olympics because the various football associations have trouble agreeing among themselves and the old worry of FIFA independence keeps returning. The i newspapercommented, though, that “if the Football Association managed to gain the support of the other home nations and Premier League clubs, a Team GB squad would have been formidable.”

European nations have been absent from the roster of winners since the competition became more flexible in its requirements – Spain won in 1992, but since then, Africa and the Americas have dominated. This is in contrast to the World Cup, which has been won by Europe five out of the last six times (France, Italy, Spain, Germany and France again). Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea have an excellent chance in Japan this year, suggested John Duerden in Channel News Asia. “The sight of an Asian men’s team beating international opposition to win gold will be a step forward for Asian football, a big story in the continent and inspiration for young football players,” said Duerden.

In both the men’s and women’s football, Asia has yet to win gold, but the region’s women have won two silvers (China 1996 and Japan 2012) and the men have two bronzes to their name (Japan 1968 and South Korea 2012).

If the Olympics are a competition too far for some, then why not revert to their original purpose, perhaps non-league football is more appropriate? Just consider the prestige for the clubs and players who form the bulk of almost every nation’s football eco-system. 

As for the women’s game, the Olympics could still serve a purpose in continuing the sport’s evolution, creating greater awareness and expanding global growth. Women’s football is still in its infancy in many ways, so the Olympics can play a part in raising standards and adding more depth. There may come a time when that, too, becomes superfluous. It does seem vaguely ridiculous that Great Britain can field a women’s team, but fail to reach common ground over a men’s side.

Want to test how much Olympic football stays in the memory? Ask the average fan who are the current champions and see how many people will know. It’s Brazil for the men, Germany for the women, by the way.