Judging by the boos echoing around Molineux on Tuesday night you’d have thought Gareth Southgate had been clinging to the England manager’s job for months.
In reality, this is the first bump of any significance in a road that’s otherwise been paved with gold. But after six years the honeymoon period appears to finally be over, and in truth, it’s been a long time coming.
By the laws of football Southgate doesn’t deserve to be sacked. He’s led the Three Lions to their first World Cup semi-final in nearly 30 years, their first European Championship final ever, and perhaps most significantly, he’s brought harmony and camaraderie back to an historically frosty dressing room. He’s undisputedly the greatest England manager of the modern era, but that doesn’t mean his time isn’t up.
After all, was Southgate ever really ‘the guy’? Following the nose-cracking faceplant that was Sam Allardyce’s appointment in 2016, the FA happened to land at the feet of a man who buttoned his shirt and neatly straightened his tie.
It was perfect because ‘squeaky clean’ Southgate was exactly what England needed at the time … but is that still the case?
In spite of all the glory that’s come England’s way at the last two major tournaments, what have the actual highlights been? Beating Germany at the Euros, fair enough – though admittedly Joachim Low’s side were the weakest they’d been in 20 years – and, what, a penalty shootout win over Colombia? That’s it.
If England sacked Southgate who would you want to replace him with? Let us know in the comments section below
When you get down to brass tacks, England have lucked out with easy draws and have consistently underperformed in the big moments. They were tactically outclassed against Italy last summer and Croatia in 2018 – teams they really ought to have beaten on paper. Ditto against Netherlands in the Nations League semi-final, and twice against Belgium at the World Cup.
The way Southgate sets the team up feels more imitative than innovative. His use of a back five has left England desperately short on imagination – and numbers – in midfield, and his structural inflexibility has stifled the effectiveness of the country’s three most exciting creative talents; Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish.
Southgate’s done an excellent job shepherding England from the wilderness, but does he have what it takes to lead them to the promised land?
Championship clubs who get promoted to the Premier League almost never go looking for a new manager over the summer. But as harsh as it sounds, why don’t they? The task ahead of them is not only a heck of a lot harder than it was the year before, but it’s also completely different, on an almost molecular level.
Do you really think Marco Silva’s Fulham are going to enjoy 60 per cent possession and average 2.3 goals a game next season – just as they did in the Championship? Of course not. This isn’t to say that Silva is the wrong man for the Cottagers right now, he’s just not automatically the right man.
And that’s exactly the situation England are facing with Southgate. The 51-year-old has been an invaluable ferryman, but the task is different now that we're across the river, and perhaps it’s time for something different. Something extra. Something a little more daring.
As Harry Kane told reporters after England’s 4-0 humbling on Tuesday, it’s important to remember where we’ve come from, but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from demanding more.
Should Belgium not demand more of Roberto Martinez simply because the team is in better shape than it was when their star player was Emile Mpenza? Should France not demand more of Didier Deschamps because winning in Russia was enough?
He’s earned the World Cup, but come 2023 Southgate should go, no matter how far he takes the team in Qatar.
He’s been England’s waistcoated warrior for six enthralling years. He’s given fans memories they never thought they’d make and for that the country owes him a great debt (and possibly even a knighthood!).
But football is a ruthless business, and if the FA – who curbed England’s ‘Golden Generation’ so foolishly by hiring obsolete and tactically rigid managers for 15 years – want their lions to finally roar, they might have to bite the hand that fed them.
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