Why Southgate must take the pressure off England in Russia.
Gareth Southgate is on the cusp of the biggest challenge in his managerial career. The former centre-half is the latest man to lead England into a World Cup Finals, in what has become an unenviable task over the past three decades. From Sir Bobby Robson’s hounding by the tabloids to Roy Hodgson’s dismal failure in the so called group of death in Brazil, it can be argued that no England manager has had an enjoyable World Cup in modern times.
This has dripped down gradually to the players. As the entertaining teams of the nineties gave way to the so called “Golden Generation” the football became a lot more tepid and dull. Much was made of terrible problems, like having to play Gerrard and Lampard in the same midfield, as well finding a home for Wayne Rooney in the team, oh the horror!
The end result led to a style of football that never looked convincing or fluid. In fact, the players looked terrified at times, too paralysed by doubt and pressure to make a killer pass or take on a player for fear of giving it away. This bland style has yielded just one win in England’s last seven World Cup matches. A terrible return when you consider it is the nation’s national sport.
Much has been made of the decision to leave Jack Wilshire at home; with some pundits predicting Southgate’s bold call will backfire miserably. It’s almost as though they have already written the headlines.
Perhaps though, the exclusion of Wilshire suggests a different approach from Southgate. If he is being brutally honest with himself and his team, he knows he has no chance of winning this tournament. What he could do though, is allow the talented young squad he has taken to Russia, the chance to do what their predecessors have failed to do for almost two decades – play with freedom and enjoyment.
Sterling, Rashford, Kane, Stones et al, they are all precious talents. They should be allowed the opportunity to play unburdened by the terrible expectation which has weighed previous England team’s down. Yes, you need the killer, competitive edge, but you also need the confidence to trust your natural quality and skill. Both have been lacking by the national team. If a player can be taken on or an ambitious shot tried, then why not encourage them to go for it? Too often the safety first option has been taken to the detriment of the match and the chances of winning well.
Southgate has the opportunity to be brave and tell his players, they are not a top nation in Russia but they can give the big boys a run for their money. If he were to unburden them and allow them freedom to play, it may pay dividends for future tournaments as they gain vital experience on the World Stage.
Banishing past misery
South Africa under Capello and Brazil under Hodgson must surely be considered two of England’s worst performances in major tournaments. The arid and outdated Capello was the personification of a cold and clinical coach. He was replaced by an even more outdated coach with an even more arid style, but without the CV.
Southgate may not be the most inspiring manager in England’s history, but at least he does offer a link to the recent, painful past. He was in the talented England squads in ’96 and ’98 that crashed out in tournaments when they were capable of so much more. That miss at Wembley must never be too far from his mind. Painful as it will always be for him he must draw on this experience in Russia.
So far, he has made some big calls as Joe Hart joins Wilshire and Rooney watching from afar. Now he must make one last, big decision and put his faith in youth. There is fearlessness in youngsters, as the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Delle Ali and Marcus Rashford have already shown in their fledgling careers. He has some excellent young talent, who have been playing at a very high standard this season. Surely they must be given the green light to start and play against Tunisia and Panama as we build momentum for the really big clash with Belgium.
Both Panama and Tunisia are likely to play deep sitting defences, so perhaps a smattering of more experienced pros like Henderson and Cahill will be called upon to show leadership and marshalling on the pitch. However, it would be a real shame to see a team playing turgid and nervy football once again in the group stages, as witnessed in 2010 and 2014.
England has the quality and personnel to be real entertainers at this World Cup. In a way Southgate need only get out of his group, to have improved on the previous efforts in Brazil, and perhaps that in itself buys him some freedom. It would be a really refreshing and encouraging attitude from the manager to take the shackles off his players this summer, and breathe some much needed positivity back into the ranks.