England manager Gareth Southgate is a class act. Eloquent, humble, compassionate and honest.
A World Cup semi-final and the final of the Euros for Southgate’s England signifies impressive progress in this country’s football history.
He’s a shoo-in for a contract extension (I don’t see any obvious alternatives for a start), but the brave decision would still be to let him go. I can’t see him ever uncorking the explosive attacking talent England have at their disposal.
I’m sure he’s turned England dressing rooms and training camps into happy places with an admirable social conscience. The players’ behaviour in the last month has been impeccable right up to donating their prize money to the NHS.
That social conscience will be tested again when England travel to Qatar, a country where homosexuality is illegal, for the next World Cup, but I’m sure Southgate’s obvious intelligence will help him find the right words to convey disapproval.
But Southgate the manager is too cautious. His default position is to play negatively. He’s frustratingly risk-averse.
It can work. It’s worked in the past for winning teams, but when a lethal marksman like Harry Kane is seen more often just outside his own penalty area than inside the opposition’s in a major final, us fans have a right to be irritated.
Just as we have a right to be bemused by Southgate’s choice of penalty takers for the shootout. Teenager Bukayo Saka was the breakout England star in this tournament, but his performance in the final as a second-half substitute should have led to the hook, not to the trauma of a potentially decisive penalty. Marcus Rashford’s club form was appalling towards the end of the season. He was rightly ignored for most of the tournament. He was hardly likely to be brimming with confidence when asked to take a crucial pressure-packed penalty two minutes after coming onto the pitch.
This was a golden chance to win a trophy. A better one might never arrive. Hardly any travelling, a draw that opened up invitingly and even refereeing decisions had started to go our way.
I was confident we would do it. I felt sure we would run the legs off Italy who had to battle through some much tougher games to get to the final.
And for 30 minutes it all went swimmingly, but then we stopped. An 11-man defence pitched camp on the edge of their own penalty area and hoped for the best.
The match stats were awful (Italy enjoyed 65% possession, and won the shot count 19-6), especially for a team playing at home and backed by passionate fans desperate for success. The coach put the shackles on. There was no freedom of expression. Glorious failure would have been England playing attractively and actually making a goalkeeper make a save or two, not playing scared and praying for a decent set-piece opportunity.
The best football matches of this competition all took place in the half of the draw that didn’t include England. I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when Italy were a more expansive, entertaining side than us. They also found a way to win when injury robbed them of a star player for the last two matches, Leonardo Spinazzola, and of their best player in the final, Federico Chiesa, for the last 40 minutes.
It remains to be seen whether or not this is a golden generation of England players, but I’m guessing we’ll never truly find out unless Southgate can find a Terry Venables type character to join his staff, one with the imagination and nous to get more of the more naturally gifted players on to the pitch at the start of matches.
We didn’t see enough of Jack Grealish, Phil Foden (although injuries hampered his contribution) or Jadon Sancho. We saw too much of Mason Mount.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was excellent as were Harry Maguire and John Stones. Raheem Sterling ran thrillingly with the ball at times, but also ran into too many cul-de-sacs. If only he had the vision of Foden or Grealish.
Ah well. It’s the hope that always hurts. England fans should know better by now.