The success of Gareth Southgate’s tenure as England manager to date is clear in the results his team have achieved. Indeed, the 51-year-old took the Three Lions to their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years in 2018 before making the final of Euro 2020, England’s first appearance in a major tournament final since 1966.
And yet Southgate’s legacy as England boss will be determined by what happens in 2022. The relative success of the last four years has raised expectations. After falling at the final hurdle last summer, England are now expected to go all the way in Qatar this winter. Anything less than World Cup glory will be considered a disappointment.
Everything Southgate has built has led to the 2022 World Cup. His team will still be a young one, but the likes of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are currently in the prime of their careers and without those players England are a blunter side. In fact, of England’s current crop Harry Maguire (seven) is the only player outside of Kane and Sterling to have scored more than five goals.
“What is clear is that in terms of goals, we are heavily reliant on Raheem and Harry,” Southgate recently admitted. “We do need those attacking players in particular to step forward and start to give us threats from other areas. Bukayo Saka has started to do that and Mason Mount has got the odd goal, but that is the challenge now for this whole group.”
The dismal UEFA Nations League defeat to Hungary raised fresh questions of Southgate as England boss. His team selection was scrutinised. The balance of the team he put on the pitch was off. But this wasn’t as concerning as England’s inability to change the game when it got away from them.
This has been a consistent trend for England under Southgate. When they have a talent advantage, the Three Lions are good enough to see off inferior teams. However, Southgate doesn’t have the tactical nous to change the dynamic of a match in which England are forced to react.
Take the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia when Luka Modric was allowed to control the match from the centre of the pitch. At no point over the course of 120 minutes was Southgate able to tweak his system to get players closer to the Real Madrid maestro. It cost his team a place in the World Cup final.
It was a similar story against Italy in the Euro 2020 final when England allowed Roberto Mancini’s team to gain a foothold in the match after Luke Shaw gave the hosts an early lead. That opener should have given England a platform to control the contest, but it only succeeded in poking the Azzurri into life.
England were handed a favourable run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. They can’t count on that happening again in 2022 and so Southgate must work on moulding a more proactive team that can make the most of the individual quality within their squad. He will have no excuses to fall back on if he can’t do this. England have the players to beat the very best.
2022 might be England’s best chance in decades to win a World Cup and Southgate deserves credit for the way he has taken his team to this point. But nobody remembers nearly-men fondly. Instead, they are often derided and vilified for wasting their shot at greatness. 2022 will go a long way to determining whether Southgate is an England great or a nearly-man.