England climbed to the summit of their Nations League group (A2) on Sunday after they came from behind to beat Belgium, the No.1 ranked team on the planet.
While it’s not exactly strange to see criticism directed at an England Manager, the last couple of months have seen ripples of discontent towards Gareth Southgate turn into something more significant; eight months before the European Championships are scheduled to get underway.
Below we question whether criticism of The Three Lions boss is fair, looking at both sides of the argument...
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When the England line-up was unveiled for Sunday’s clash with Belgium, it sparked a combination of confusion, disbelief and mockery on social media.
Southgate opted for pragmatism over panache. He employed two defensive midfielders to shield three centre-backs, didn’t start a left-footed player, and man of the moment Jack Grealish was left on the bench.
The result was a performance void of attacking intent and intensity. Ponderous and passive passing was in overload mode, while the nerves were jangling whenever Belgium surged forward.
In the end, Southgate could justify his decisions as England claimed a win over one of the world’s best teams.
But while The Three Lions won the game, they were fortunate.
The result stretched England’s unbeaten run to seven matches, six of which have been wins. The anomaly was a sleep-inducing goalless draw last month against Denmark, which had followed a dramatic, yet lucky, 1-0 win in Iceland.
Fingers have subsequently been pointed in the direction of Southgate, whose conservatism has been criticised.
While there’s a certain satisfaction to winning big games a performance may not warrant, the abundance of flair and attacking talent at Southgate’s disposal means supporters now expect more adventure and conviction.
There are puzzles that still need solving: Why isn’t Trent Alexander-Arnold performing to his Liverpool levels, why doesn’t Southgate completely trust Grealish, and who should play in defence. These are just a few examples, which need figuring out sharpish.
While the Belgium result is impressive on paper, the performance was more a case of job done, than a statement of real intent which could have sent fear across the rest of Europe.
England Manager: Gareth Southgate
How short are some people’s memories?
It was only two years ago when Southgate released the shackles, invigorated a nation, and inspired a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years. He had people dancing in the streets in jubilation, waistcoat sales had soared spectacularly, and a nation was once again proud of its team. His reputation was sky-high.
Southgate has since led England to the inaugural Nations League Finals - they finished third - won another penalty shoot-out, overseen wins over Spain, Croatia and most recently World No.1 side Belgium, who hadn’t lost in two years.
Southgate’s win rate is up to 60%, putting him in the top-five bracket when it comes to England Managers: of the permanent managers to take charge of 10+ matches, only Fabio Capello (66.7%), Sir Alf Ramsey (61.1%) and Glenn Hoddle (60.7%) are above the current incumbent (sorry Big Sam).
England have only conceded one goal in the last year - a penalty - they’ve mixed high-scoring wins over the likes of Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo with a dig-deep yet notable victory over an elite side in Belgium.
To a certain extent, it could be argued that the manner England won the game will keep expectations at a more reasonable level ahead of next summer’s showpiece spectacle, as history tells us we buckle when the bar is set too high.
Southgate became the first England manager to beat Belgium in the competitive fixture since Sir Bobby Robson claimed a 1-0 win 28 years ago. The victory also means that England have won 20 of their past 21 competitive home games; hammered in 67 goals and conceded only 10.
England may have ground out the win instead of storming to victory, but the triumph shows England don’t have to be at their very best to beat one of the big guns - which bodes well for the knockout nature of tournament football.
After all, few national teams ever dazzle their way to trophies. Just look at Portugal four years ago.
Best win rates as England manager...— The Sack Race (@thesackrace) October 11, 2020
- Fabio Capello: 66.7%
- Glenn Hoddle: 60.7%
- Gareth Southgate: 60%
- Ron Greenwood: 60%
- Sven-Goran Eriksson: 59.7%
He's become the first England manager to get a win over Belgium in a competitive game since 1990🏴#ENGBEL pic.twitter.com/PoOh64EHM3
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, as a football manager you’re going to be criticised. You could beat Brazil 9-0 and someone would demand to know why you didn’t hit double figures.
I can understand some of the verbals being thrown in Southgate’s direction. Given the players we have at the moment people want excitement, ambition and attacking flair, which we’ve not seen much of lately. Southgate doesn’t seem to know what his best starting-11 is either.
Yet, with that said he has every right to tinker, test new systems and try out different players. The format of international football means he gets minimal time with his troops, so he’s got to trust himself and decide what the best option is for each individual game. Sometimes his experiments will flourish, other times they’ll be mocked.
Calls for his head seem a touch ludicrous, especially with a tournament rapidly approaching - we hope so anyway. Who knows, this time next year England could have scooped the European Championships and Nations League double...