areth Southgate is not an England manager typically prone to influence from outside forces. He has rarely appeared swayed by public sentiment or the whims of the media, instead trusting his own judgment and the counsel of a close group of staff.
When seemingly the entire country wanted him to unleash England’s attacking talent at Euro 2020, Southgate kept the handbrake on and, whether sticking by Harry Maguire or resisting the clamour to build a team around Jack Grealish, the 52-year-old has been the country’s most successful modern manager by doing it his way.
Southgate’s refusal to be guided by public opinion was part of what made the selection of James Maddison in his World Cup squad so surprising.
There had long been a feeling that Southgate had reservations about Maddison’s character and where he would fit into the England side — both played down by the manager last week — and yet the Leicester playmaker is going to Qatar having not been involved since winning his only cap, in November 2019.
Maddison’s call-up is, perhaps, the best example of Southgate making a big call in line with a swell of public sentiment, and while there may be no correlation between the manager’s thinking and the view of supporters, the decision appeared somewhat out of character.
On some level, selecting Maddison may be an indication that sure-footed Southgate is starting to second-guess himself. If an element of self-doubt has crept into his decision-making, it would be understandable.
England’s dismal Nations League campaign, which ended in relegation, strained Southgate’s relationship with fans and leaves him under more pressure than ever going into the World Cup.
He faced jeers during England’s 4-0 defeat to Hungary at Molineux in June and was booed by a Wembley crowd at the end of the loss to Italy in September.
There were significant mitigating circumstances to England’s Nations League failure — none of the players really wanted to compete in the four matches in early June — but the campaign created a sense that the squad is going stale under Southgate, that a cycle is potentially nearing a natural conclusion.
Southgate has been in charge for six years, and even at international level, players can grow weary of the same voice. Twelve of his 26-man squad for Qatar were with him in Russia in 2018, and there are only seven new faces from the group which reached the final of the European Championship last year.
Southgate is not naive to the problem, and in June, before the thrashing by Hungary, he said he would not “outstay my welcome” if he thought the players were no longer responding to his methods. He made a similar statement after the Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy, but subsequently signed a new contract which runs to 2024.
The deal will keep Southgate in charge until after the next Euros, but he has acknowledged that it will count for little if England do not deliver in Qatar.
“I am not foolish,” he said in June. “I know ultimately I will be judged on what happens at that World Cup. Contracts are irrelevant in football, because managers can have three-, four-, five‑year contracts and you accept that, if results are not good enough, it is time to go your separate ways. “Why would I be any different? I am not arrogant enough to think that my contract is going to protect me in any way.”
Those comments, married with success at the last two tournaments and recent results, have underlined that Southgate is no longer in the building phase with England: his side are now expected to deliver, and his future could therefore hinge on what happens in the next five weeks.
Cruelly, Southgate is in danger of being a victim of his own success. He took over an England side with expectations at rock bottom after the defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 but leads them to Qatar with the country expecting both results and performances. His conservative style remains a sore point but, while England fans are entitled to demand entertainment, Southgate’s instincts have led the team to the brink of glory.
To be successful in Qatar, the country needs the manager to maintain total faith in his own judgment. Ultimately, Southgate has earned the right to keep doing it his way.
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