LONDON – Gareth Southgate may be aware of the growing dissent within the English fan base and fears of what he describes as an impending ‘war’ with sections of the media, but on Monday his players delivered the most important verdict of all.
There was never a chance the football governing body would drop Southgate before the start of the World Cup in Qatar, but they were on the brink of a new low in their six-year reign as they trailed 2-0 to Germany in Monday’s UEFA Nations League clash at Wembley .
Since reaching the final at Euro 2020 last year, questions have grown louder about his team’s direction – specifically whether the 52-year-old is too conservative to maximize the attacking potential of an exciting group of individuals.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (USA)
Southgate had spoken of sticking to what he believes in after Friday’s 1-0 defeat in Italy and at Wembley he did just that, using his now-favored 3-4-3 formation and a series of selection decisions that felt increasingly idiosyncratic. Southgate has maintained his enduring loyalty to Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, despite both Manchester United players’ shares falling faster than the British pound. He put Nick Pope in goal in place of Aaron Ramsdale with the injured Jordan Pickford and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fikayo Tomori wasn’t even in the matchday squad.
As the game went into the final 20 minutes, Wembley were quiet, the Germans had mocked the locals by chanting ‘Football’s Coming Home’ in immaculate English and Southgate led 565 minutes without a goal from open play. And then England sprang to life and roared back to eventually secure a 3-3 finish.
Reece James, selected ahead of Alexander-Arnold, swung a cross at the far post where Shaw controlled the ball and pressed a shot under Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The sight of one full-back assisting the other brought back memories of England’s quick start to the Euro 2020 final against Italy, when Shaw scored after just two minutes, the apotheosis of Southgate’s tenure.
It will have felt like a justification given the ongoing search for the most effective formation with this current group alternating between 3-4-3 and something close to 4-2-3-1 – a form Southgate took in the first leg in Munich used . And it sparked a rousing comeback.
Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount, who came on for Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden five minutes before Shaw’s goal, revived quickly and combined well for Mount to equalize. Then Nico Schlotterbeck produced an ugly tackle on Jude Bellingham in the box and Harry Kane stepped forward to put England ahead.
It’s Southgate’s lot at the moment that a win was snatched from him – or, more accurately, fumbled from Pope’s grip as the Newcastle United goalkeeper spilled Serge Gnabry’s tame shot and Kai Havertz equalized. But this was a night when individual mistakes undermined England, rather than a collective, systemic failure that Southgate’s critics claim has set in.
In a goalless first half, England created the better chances, but Sterling, Phil Foden and Kane were unable to capitalize on those moments, falling behind through isolated errors. Maguire looked extremely clumsy as he took down Jamal Musiala in the pits. Havertz’s second result came from a brilliant finish, but firstly it was another cheap concession of possession from Maguire.
Southgate’s loyalty to Maguire is admirable on a personal level, but looks out of place given the errors that have permeated his game for more than a year. However, it’s that same trusting trait that allowed the England squad leadership group, which included Kane, Sterling and Jordan Henderson, among others, to feel comfortable enough to approach Southgate and ask for a private, unstaffed meeting to mark the slump in form of the team to fix.
“They asked if they could have a meeting alone [without the coaching staff] to talk things through,” Southgate said on Monday.[It wasn’t about] tactical messages just to keep people on track: “We’re on board with what we’re asked to do, we have to keep calm, we’ve had moments like this before.”
“We have players who have had moments like this with England but not as many now so I think they all learn together. In those moments we have to hold on to what we are doing.”
Something stirred here. For a brief 11-minute period, England recalled the best they have ever seen under Southgate: dynamic, purposeful and resilient. She was absent for far too long, in sterile appearances twice against Hungary, twice against Italy and for much of the game in Munich.
Southgate must use this time somehow and recreate it in Qatar for over five weeks – without seeing the players until eight days before the tournament. And no warm-up games either.
The frankly absurd home game plan will take a toll on these players in the coming weeks. In all honesty, they could have been forgiven for keeping their thoughts on this weekend and beyond – the Premier League resumes with two big derbies in north London and Manchester – as they fell 2-0 here.
But they decided to rally. Declan Rice and Bellingham kept the ball in central midfield. Bellingham is a big plus this international break. He will certainly start in Qatar.
Saka and Mount provided plenty of momentum off the bench. Defense continues to be a big problem – it’s the main reason for Southgate’s caution, which seeks to better protect vulnerable defenses by bolstering a midfield that has habitually struggled to retain possession.
These are longstanding problems. But Monday’s ad showed Southgate and his players are still united in trying to solve them.
https://www.espn.com/soccer/england-eng/story/4754105/englands-players-still-believe-in-southgate-pre-world-cup England’s players still believe in Southgate pre-World Cup