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Euro 2024: How should Gareth Southgate be judged – England’s saviour or squanderer?

The clock is ticking on Gareth Southgate's tenure as England manager

Gareth Southgate

There are few more polarising figures in English football than Gareth Southgate.

The 53-year-old leads England to a major tournament for the fourth time at Euro 2024 and does so with question marks still surrounding the success of his near eight-year tenure.

Did England over-perform in reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, the final of Euro 2020 and the quarters of the World Cup in 2022? Or did they underachieve in not claiming silverware in any of them?

With Southgate admitting today that he will most likely leave the job if England don’t win the European Championship – and, even if they did, what better time to head off to more lucrative pastures new? – then it seems a logical time to assess his performance in charge of the Three Lions.

 

Southgate impresses in early years

Rewind to that fateful night in Nice eight years ago when England were humbled by Iceland and few would believe we were even having this debate given Southgate’s record.

The Euro 2016 debacle meant the end for Roy Hodgson with successor Sam Allardyce lasting just 67 days before being undone by a newspaper sting over a casual pint of wine.

In stepped Southgate as a safe pair of hands having impressed the FA suits during his time as Under-21s boss.

He was a breath of fresh air. Eloquent, honest and engaging off the field, he made immediate improvements on it as England gained 26 points out of a possible 30 on their way to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

Their performances in Russia were a mixed bag. A last-gasp win over Tunisia was unconvincing while a 6-1 hammering of Panama was largely expected given the countries’ relative resources. The 1-0 defeat to Belgium in the final Group G game was viewed as a blessing as it, in theory, pushed England into the easier half of the draw.

A last-16 encounter with Colombia in Moscow was tricky, though, and it required the brilliance of Jordan Pickford to send England through on penalties.

Defeat there and the whole narrative would have changed.

As it was, England swept past Sweden and faced Croatia in the semi-finals.

Opportunity number one.

 

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Wembley incentive

England went into Euro 2020 – a tournament held in 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic – knowing the bulk of their games would be held at Wembley, including the semis and the final should they get there.

There were reduced capacities due to partial restrictions but the incentive was clear.

1966, 55 years of hurt and all that.

Raheem Sterling scored winning goals as England edged out Croatia and the Czech Republic 1-0, either side of a dour goalless draw with Scotland.

It meant progression but the lack of fluidity and attacking thrust had the critics out in force.

They were briefly silenced as a much-improved England beat old rivals Germany 2-0 before a 4-0 thrashing of Ukraine in Rome in the quarter-finals.

Denmark proved obdurate opponents in the semis with England squeezing through thanks to a Harry Kane strike in extra-time.

Italy, who required penalties to see off Spain in their last-four tie, lay in wait in the final.

Opportunity number two.

 

A winter wonderland?

Again, England flexed their muscles in qualifying with eight wins and two draws from 10 games to secure a place in the first World Cup ever to be held in the European winter – in Qatar in November and December, 2022.

The heat was on in every sense. England’s talented young squad went in expectation rather than hope, burgeoning young talents such as Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden set to make their mark on the world stage.

As it was, it was largely more of the same.

Getting out of the group was not a problem – even if there was the customary poor performance, this time against the United States in a woeful 0-0 draw, thrown in.

Senegal proved a straightforward assignment, as had Sweden and Ukraine in tournaments past.

But in the quarter-finals lay the real test. France, the defending champions, Mbappe, Griezmann et al. Get through and it would be Morocco in the semis.

Opportunity number three.

 

Was it ‘Coming Home’?

Croatia in the semi-finals of a World Cup – with the greatest respect to Ante Cacic and his players, this was a dream scenario. The other half of the draw in 2018 contained Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil and Belgium’s Golden Generation.

Kieran Trippier put England ahead and Kane hit the post as England went into half-time in front and on top. Maintain this front-foot approach for another 45 minutes and England would be in the World Cup final.

They couldn’t. Croatia improved and England wilted. Ivan Perisic equalised to take it into extra-time and Mario Mandzukic settled it with a left-footed effort.

Opportunity wasted.

Southgate’s critics argue England have yet to beat a world class side at a major tournament and it’s hard to disagree.

The closest they came was in 2021 when they saw off Germany, but this was not a vintage German side. There was no Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthaus or Jurgen Klinsmann. See instead Matthias Ginter, Robin Gosens and Timo Werner.

It was even a stretch to put final opponents Italy in that class. Roberto Mancini’s men were not talked about as potential winners before the tournament started and their run to the final was mixed with impressive wins against Switzerland and Belgium offset by patchy performances against Wales and Austria.

On a warm Wembley night, the sense was this was England’s time, a feeling that increased when Luke Shaw stole in to give England the lead inside two minutes.

England briefly threatened to overwhelm the Italians but, once the Azzurri got a foothold in midfield, Southgate’s men again retreated into their shells and it was no surprise when Leonardo Bonucci levelled midway through the second half. The equaliser had been coming.

As with all good England heartbreakers, this went to penalties with Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missing to hand Italy the trophy.

So close and so cruel.

Opportunity wasted.

If that was frustrating with the initiative seemingly again relinquished due to caution, nerves and perhaps an overwhelming sense of expectation, England’s defeat to France 17 months later was more easily explained.

It simply came down to know-how, muscle memory and the intangible ability to ‘get the job done’.

England were the better side in the Qatari desert, yet their fans were still left with an aching sense of disappointment.

The game was finely poised at 1-1, Kane’s penalty cancelling out Aurelien Tchouameni’s opener when France’s two most experienced players made their mark.

Antoine Griezmann whipped in a cross from the left and Olivier Giroud powered his header past Pickford.

England’s most experienced player had the chance to level again but Kane sent a second penalty high into the night sky.

Fine margins once again.

Opportunity wasted.

 

So, over-performed or underachieved?

The harsh reality is it’s probably the latter.

England have had three wonderful chances to win major silverware and not got the job done. Yes, they have come close and yes, luck has eluded them on occasion.

But there are no asterixes to detail misfortune in the record books.

On at least two of those three occasions, England have had the chance to put the hammer down and failed to do so. Both times, you felt Southgate had got in his own way, an ingrained cautiousness prevailing over all-out attack.

His style has never mirrored Jurgen Klopp’s ‘rock and roll football’.

Southgate’s legacy will ultimately be defined by what happens over the next four weeks in Germany.

Win the trophy and few will mention the near-misses. They will be regarded as stops on the journey.

But fail again and fans will rightly demand answers. Southgate won’t be around to answer them, he will have departed with a reputation as a nearly-man in tow.

As he said himself: “If you want to be a top coach, then you have to deliver in the big moments.”

Over to you Gareth.

Picture of Jon Fisher

Jon Fisher

Jon has over 20 years' experience in sports journalism having worked at the Press Association, Goal and Stats Perform, covering three World Cups, an Olympics and numerous other major sporting events.

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