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.

Euro 2020: The result can be brushed aside, but worry about the reputational damage

NOBODY should be too surprised that the aftermath of the European Championship final descended into primitive times: the hospitals anticipated increased A&E traffic, people predicted “there will be all hell let loose” if England lost and you just knew that racism would come to the fore. 

In short, while Gareth Southgate’s team performed heroically throughout Euro 2020, the players, the nation (and humanity) were all let down by thousands of drunk, aggressive and racist fans.

We’ve seen it before, of course, one of our top sporting exports in the 1970s and 1980s was football violence,  but we assumed the worst had passed thanks to the gentrification of the game. But in the past five years, there has been a resurgence of ignorance, a rise in racism and anti-semitism, popular nationalism and, overwhelmingly, increased xenophobia. And there’s been more than a sprinkling of arrogance. We don’t need to dig too deeply to find the root cause, but it is fuelled and almost egged-on by certain toxic political elements. Football has always been vulnerable to be exploited by those that want to whip-up prejudice and bigotry.

As soon as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed their penalties, it was inevitable the blame for defeat would head their way. On the London Underground afterwards, black fans were attacked, while anyone Italian was under threat on their journey home from Wembley. So very disgusting, so very sad – but so very predictable.

We buried our heads in the sand for some years, believing racism was no longer a problem, but every now and then, an incident would be reported and we were always open-mouth horrified. But it really never went away, it was just beneath the surface, ignored and, often, played down by the media. We’ve had a series of wake-up calls and the whole “Black Lives Matter” campaign, which was jeered by a lot of fans, indicated something was very badly wrong. 

Dovetailing the racist element was the general behaviour in London during the hours leading to kick-off, with fans climbing on red buses, trashing the streets, sticking flares in their orifices and urinating in public, all of which points to a society with problems. Football just happens to be an outlet for it. Boris Johnson said they should be ashamed of themselves, but will they really care? And the storming of the Wembley gates? Have they learnt nothing from crowd disasters of the past? 

Do these people not realise that reacting in this way to defeat only makes the loss harder to take? In such circumstances, empathy and the spirit of “we’re in it together” is vital, but the way fans invariably respond to disappointment is to become angry and to seek a scapegoat. All the pre-match singing, all the fake affection and bonhomie, amounted to nothing. Football fans have always been fickle, but instead of venting their frustration, true football fans sympathise and console the vanquished, and real sportsmen and women congratulate the winners, not kick their fans.

For many years, UEFA and FIFA refused to award England a major competition. The events of July 11 2021 will probably set back the nation in terms of sporting credibility – England look like sore losers. Such a pity, as England’s young players performed very well and were the second best team in Europe – a status that should have kept their runners-up medals around their necks. Right now, the fans involved in this debacle should ask themselves, what did they really do for their country?

@GameofthePeople

Euro 2020: England must beware the pressure of playing mine host

IT HAS been 37 years since a host nation won the European Championship, a golden tournament that witnessed Michel Platini stand imperiously astride the continent with a highly seductive France side. England, the de facto hosts of Euro 2020, have the chance to do likewise, but it won’t be easy – hosts don’t often prosper in this competition.

England’s trump card (we really need to replace that description) is not so much home status, but the partisan audience that has come out of hiding in recent weeks. We’ve become unaccustomed to the sound of the crowd over the past year and a half, but in the semi-final at Wembley, the noise was deafening, the intention unequivocal. The presence of spectators was almost unnerving and this could be turned to England’s advantage on July 11.

Never mind that the Euros may herald the beginning of another upturn in covid cases, if England win, it will be akin to uncorking a vigorously shaken-up bottle of sparkling wine. After 55 years of “hurt”, It could get out of control.

Perfect

England versus Italy is one of those finals that “perfect world” romantics often dream about. Along with England v Brazil and England v Germany, it ranks as one of those clashes the marketing department genuinely hope for. It will never be too arduous to sell England v Italy, but it might have been harder to sell Denmark v Spain or Denmark v Belgium. UEFA must be relieved that two blue riband nations are playing in the final.

But England have to beware. The last two hosts to reach the final have both been beaten – Portugal in 2004 and France in 2016. Only three times have hosts won the Henri Delaunay Trophy: Spain in 1964, Italy in 1968 and France 1984. If you consider Europe’s big five leagues to be England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, then the Euro final has featured big five derbies four times in the past: 1984 (France v Spain); 2000 (France v Italy); 2008 (Spain v Germany); and 2012 (Spain v Italy). 

On the face of it, this is a tight final, although England will be favourites with many people. In competitive games over the past two tournaments (World Cup 2018/Euro 2020) and their qualifiers, Italy have a win rate of 78.57% and England 76.7%. Italy have played 28 games, despite being absent at the World Cup in Russia, and England have played 30. In total, Italy, under Roberto Mancini, have embarked on an unbeaten run of more than 30 games.

England have the advantage of younger legs. Of the Italian starting XI that won the semi-final,  four were 30 or over. Admittedly, players like Giorgio Chiellini are polished veterans, but England’s only 30-something was Kyle Walker, and he’s still got muscle and speed. Italy have played almost all of their 26-man squad at some stage, goalkeeper Alex Meret is the only member of the party not have been fielded for at least five minutes. England, meanwhile, have used 21 of their 26 players with six starting every game compared to just three Italian ever-presents.

England will also be favourites because they have the most valuable squad. According to Transfermarkt, the entire England squad is valued at over £ 1 billion, while Italy’s is £ 676 million. Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount were already among the most coveted players in Europe, but to that list Bukayo Saka will surely be added after Euro 2020. Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden may get their chance next year in Qatar, but they have been used sparingly. For Italy, more people now know about Nicoló Barella, Federico Chiesa, Lorenzo Insigne and Leonardo Spinazzola. 

Confidence

In the back of Gareth Southgate’s mind must surely be the knowledge that England rarely beat Italy in serious matches. In fact, their only victory in competitive action was in 1977 when England won 2-0 at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier. Times have changed since Italy’s defence-minded approach would intimidate opponents, but it does seem as though the “Azzurri” are in the ascendancy once more. But then so are England, who have found the recipe to tournament management. It has been a long time coming, but the strength of the unit is there for all to see. 

So too is the team’s confidence and ability to surge forward. Sterling and Saka seem to scare the living daylights out of defenders, if only for their habit of inviting costly challenges. And at corners and free-kicks, the leaping brick wall that is Harry Maguire appears to win everything. 

Southgate seems to have found a similar kind of “men for the job” approach that served Sir Alf Ramsey so well in 1966. Not everyone would have selected Maguire, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Raheem Sterling, but Southgate has resisted the call for popular choices like Grealish and Foden to rely on those he trusts the most. Like Ramsey, he has seen his team improve as the competition has progressed, shrugging aside the sceptics. And like Ramsey, he could be invited to the Palace when it is all over. Buckingham, that is.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Alamy