What more do people want from Gareth Southgate?
Southgate faces an impossible challenge in pleasing an insatiable fanbase
England have secured qualification for the 2022 World Cup after beating San Marino by a margin of 10 (ten) goals. They've topped the group without losing, boasting a goal difference of +31. Only San Marino, and all that, but achieving qualification in this manner is an impressive feat. Just look around the other European qualifying groups.
Spain were taken to the last 10 minutes of their final group game against Sweden before they finally claimed top spot. Portugal, whose squad possesses just as much quality as England's, suffered a late blow against Serbia and will have to go through the play-off route. European champions Italy are also in the play-offs after drawing with Northern Ireland.
England's qualification comes off the back of reaching a Euros final and a World Cup semi-final, which apparently needs repeating given some of the criticism Southgate still faces in his role as England manager. Everyone will have their gripes with style and team selection but ultimately, he is England's most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey won the World Cup on home soil in 1966.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 15, 2021
Famously, managing England is an impossible job. English football fans are excessively demanding. Every four years we delude ourselves into thinking we are going to win the World Cup. Every decision is scrutinised to the nth degree. Five defenders? Unacceptable. No Grealish? Unacceptable. Sterling starting? Burn Wembley down.
Most football fanbases are like this, but the widespread nature of support for the national team and the wealth of talent Southgate now has to choose from exacerbates these debates to an unhealthy level, borne from a combination of entitlement and inherent pessimism. We are shit. And anything less than World Cup glory is failure. Good luck.
This reached its peak during the early stages of the Euros, when an out of form Raheem Sterling was selected to start ahead of Jack Grealish. The 0-0 against Scotland did little to settle the disgruntled fans, who craved a more adventurous style of play. But ultimately Southgate's approach was vindicated, as he made tactical tweaks dependent on the opponent, masking the squad's weaknesses and didn't concede a goal until the semi-finals.
And despite getting to a final, only losing on penalties to a superb Italy side, the furore continues. The response to Southgate's XI for both the Albania game (5-0 up at half-time) and San Marino (biggest ever competitive win) reveals the insatiable desire to play all out attacking football. Three centre-backs against part time plumbers, Gareth? Three? That's insane.
But such surface level, knee jerk reactions miss the bigger picture. He's working on getting his players comfortable in two different systems. A back three does not mean parking the bus against teams like San Marino, not with Bukayo Saka and Trent Alexander-Arnold at wing-back - effectively a forward and a playmaker.
Southgate has done well to block out all this noise and stick to his guns, though it is clear he does hear it. "If we pick that team and we don't win, I'm dead," he said after England's 2-0 victory over Germany in the summer. Sacrificing an attacker to match Germany's 3-4-3 shape, with Grealish, Mount and Foden all benched, was a risk. Had it backfired, the post-mortem would have lasted months, with big, existential questions about England's fear of creativity dominating the conversation for years.
But it worked. It was the right plan for the right game, and he switched it up for the following round against Ukraine, when it would be easier to dominate possession.
This is his greatest strength as England manager; his courage to make unpopular decisions, and his tactical adaptability. Since the turn of the millennium, England have suffered under managers who shoehorned in attacking talent to the detriment of the team. Now we have a manager who will actually play the right team for the occasion, who has qualified for another tournament unbeaten, and who is adored by his players.
And yet some fans still want him gone, which begs the question: what more do people want from him?