Let me begin by stressing that Gareth Southgate’s England may yet crash out of the World Cup in the quarter finals, and that familiar feeling of failure may fester once again. However, that does not mean that the current England manager has not already achieved something that his predecessors did not manage to, even if they didn’t manage much at all.
The majority of this England squad is experiencing a major tournament for the first time at senior level
Southgate’s main achievement thus far is successfully altering public perception of the England national football team. Southgate has spoken a lot recently of his England team being full of new players, with a new way of playing and thinking. Going into the World Cup, it very much seemed that these were merely words, yet England’s opening results and performances in Russia – as well as what’s going on behind the scenes – have proven that they are more than just words, and people are buying into them. Southgate’s England is a team that is not haunted by the failures of England teams of the past, and rightly so – what reason do these young players have to see a similar spectre? The majority of this England squad is experiencing a major tournament for the first time at senior level. If they lose in the quarter finals, then so be it. That does not mean that their failure would or should be connected to past ones. Recent England managers – such as Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello, and Sven-Goran Eriksson – hoped to change the public’s view of the national side by winning. Southgate realises that perhaps an inverse approach is more apt; change the perception of England, and then they can win.
But how does changing a perception lead to winning? Firstly, one needn’t look far to see the positivity of England fans this summer, and to realise that it is unlike anything we have seen in years. Kane and co. have begged England fans to show them some love and support, rather than exhibiting the usual negativity. Fans have responded positively, and the players know it. Subsequently, they are enjoying the tournament as much as the fans are. The visible tension that took over previous England teams is (as of yet) nowhere to be seen. Secondly, the perception of the national side has changed, because the national side has changed. There is something (arguably worryingly) impressive in Southgate’s competence, and there is certainly something refreshing in the fearlessness of England’s young lions. This has allowed fans to view and speak of the England team more affectionately and optimistically than in recent years. These qualities in the manager and players are somewhat alien for this generation of England fans.
There is no reliance on older players for England at this World Cup
Thanks to Southgate, there is no reliance on older players for England at this World Cup, there is no uncertainty surrounding the best formation, and any debate about the best starting XI is due to a healthy competition for places, rather than a dearth of quality players, or a lack of players suited to their positions. Looking back, it is frankly scary to consider that Roy Hodgson went into a World Cup without even knowing which formation was best for the team. Southgate himself has played for England, and in that time he experienced some relative highs, as well as the lows more typically associated with the English national side. He knows what to avoid, and what to aim for.
The only concern at this point is that if England continue to perform, there will be a correlating increase in expectations and pressure. One can already feel it. If England lose in the next round, perhaps the perception of England will revert to what it has been for much of the last two decades, and even the decades before them. Then again, maybe Southgate has changed this England team enough that they might succeed. Perhaps more importantly, maybe he has changed perception enough to allow them to.