Gareth Southgate and the never-ending story of English football’s delusions | England

“The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with. ”

And so, tossed on the familiar tides of rage, shortsightedness and good old-fashioned English exceptionalism, it becomes necessary to defend Gareth Southgate. In a way this is all quite comforting. Every England manager has two things in common: they all fail in the end, if only because there is no sane gauge of success; and they all tell us, in their own ways, exactly why England managers fail.

There are excuses that could be made for England’s wretched performance against a highly motivated Hungary team on Tuesday. But none of them really wash. We could say the squad was tired and depleted. Which is true, but then so is everyone else.

We could say had England’s supporters cheered the players rather than booing them intermittently for the final three ‑ quarters of the game the team might have been more inspired. We could suggest that the nation celebrated Southgate over the past year for his unprecedented success, as opposed to constantly finding fault, he might be a better, more confident England manager now.

We might suggest England supporters and parts of the media have become like a toxic partner, hovering malevolently, pouncing gleefully on each mistake, right down to racially abusing the players for losing a tournament final, then wondering why they might have fallen away one year on .

But again, none of this really washes. It is the role of the manager to find solutions to these things. That is the job: problem solving, clarity, motivation. And Southgate knew what was coming because Hungary had already been bruising opponents in Budapest. Harry Kane was smothered once again, Attila Szalai spending much of the game grabbing Kane’s shirt collar like the striker owed him money.

At the other end John Stones was given a traumatic time by Adam Szalai, who enjoyed himself immensely. There is a statue outside Molineux of the great Billy Wright, who was famously described by Geoffrey Green of the Times as “like a fire engine going to the wrong fire” after being befuddled by Hungary at Wembley in 1953. But at least Wright was still going to an actual fire. Stones passed his time on the pitch attending a series of unconnected events – crank calls, weddings, book launches – while the flames in his rear-view mirror raged.

Adam Szalai of Hungary competes with John Stones of England during the Nations League match at Molineux on 14 June
Adam Szalai gives John Stones a tough time at Molineux. Photograph: Chris Brunskill / Fantasista / Getty Images

Again this is no excuse. Bad defeats happen. Teams age. Coaches lose their grasp of the details. It takes a special kind of expertise to build a second iteration of a successful team; to do so without a lull or a falling-off, that’s elite territory. Southgate isn’t perfect. There is a natural lifespan to these things. Who knows, they may even be done after the World Cup.

But this isn’t the interesting part, is it? What is now startling about England’s dip in form is the violence of the reaction, the squeals of genuine rage that have accompanied not just this defeat but the victories that preceded it.

Looking back now at the Golden Waistcoat days, the summer of love from Moscow to Kaliningrad, when Gareth became, briefly, the perfect man, it is striking to think the dominant note of his time with England may well end up being the current one: betrayal, enmity, howls of displeasure.

Somehow the only manager to really get this job since Terry Venables has become another note in that never-ending story; another managerial reign that tells us a great deal more about England and the deep cultural delusions of English football than it does about tactics, formations, penalty shootouts and all the rest.

It is necessary here to state once again some very simple facts. Southgate has the best win rate of any England manager to oversee 50 games. Southgate has taken England to two semi-finals in five years, after two semi-finals in the previous half a century. Southgate has lost two games out of 26 in the past two years. Southgate also developed England players through the age-group levels, helped to impose a style, made the team likable, showed faith in youth, brought golden moments and an avalanche of goals, and has always acted as a leader to be proud of. Does this still sound like it’s really about football?

But then, this is England, where it is necessary to manage not just the team but also the newly freighted load of English insularity, English expectation. The founding identity of the England football team rests on one basic misconception that the default option is for England to win. And that if this is not happening then there is a problem to solve, because something is fundamentally wrong with the universe.

There is a kind of Arthurian element to this, a deep, unexpressed assumption that the condition of simply being English is at the bottom irresistible. Correctly managed, freed from its stone, an unfettered Englishness must always prevail. We have seen this in visceral, thrilling players such as Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard, whose qualities were often seen as something to be “unleashed” not tempered or balanced. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of Albion. They will fall before us.

So the success of other nations is always an aberration from the norm. So English failure is always vicious and melodramatic. And so English success can never be enjoyed. The semi-final is a failure. The final is a chance passed up. Yes, England are one of the best two teams in Europe. But why not the best? Who can be blamed for this?

Foolishly it seeds Southgate might have killed this dark energy in 2018, when his humility seeds so refreshing after the trauma of Iceland in Nice. But it is clear now those qualities, the solipsism, the refusal to look outside, the culture of we-have-nothing-to-learn-from-the-Brazilians has been sublimated into the level of expectation around this careful, pragmatic team.

It’s there in howls of dismay at the failure to destroy all before us by playing unbound attacking football, like no other in recent international football history. It’s there in the misconceptions masquerading as analysis. Before the Germany game last week one former footballer could be heard stating with total certainty that England were better “man for man” than Germany, who had nine Champions League winners in their team.

It is probably there, too, in Southgate’s own culture of alpha nice of ism, of being the most thoughtful, now wonderful England generation, and in the initial swell of triumphalism at finding an England team not annoyingly hyped-up on their own nationality. We are the humblest! We will nice you into submission!

Gareth Southgate reacts during the Nations League match between England and Hungary at Molineux
Gareth Southgate’s England have failed to win any of their Nations League matches this month. Photograph: Ryan Browne / Shutterstock

Southgate benefited from that upswing when he took over. There have been mistakes since, now notably a failure to build a second team, to improve the attack which is still basically Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, just older, to mask the callowness of central midfield, the weakness of the center-halves, without sinking into all-out defense. Will we ever get a clear look at any of this? Success has brought something else, a reawakening of the crack of English insularity; transformed now into squalls of rage that threaten to consume a transitional team.

The frustration is that there are genuine flaws and missteps here, details that get lost in the wider hysteria. For example, the widely accepted idea that England have a crop of talent that is the envy of the rest of Europe is clearly a wild overstatement, one that blurs the lines of what is possible. There was talk on Tuesday night of the failure to build a team around Phil Foden, of Foden being able to “dominate European football”, a ridiculous burden to place on England’s best young player, a 22-year-old still finding his game.

As for the idea Trent Alexander-Arnold is self-evidently the remedy for narrowly failing to win tight games in the final stages, that tends to dissolve in two words: Vinícius and Júnior. Alexander-Arnold is a brilliant creative full-back. But England can’t play like Liverpool and Kyle Walker is just a better bet for now in this team.

But why don’t England simply attack? Why don’t they pour forward? Why don’t they overwhelm their opponents? The obvious answer is that nobody plays like this in international football, where caution tends to prevail. Didier Deschamps won the World Cup five years ago while refusing to take the handbrake off – and with a much higher-quality squad.

A more genuine note of criticism is that Southgate has failed to progress and evolve the team. Opponents have learned how to defend against England, to sit deep, to attack their defensive frailties on the break. England have also been wooden and mannered in high-stakes one-off games, where too often their midfield has been overwhelmed. But then, these games are often won by the best midfielders, and England are light here. It is tempting to ask who Southgate is supposed to pick? Bernardo Silva? Fabinho? N’Golo Kanté?

Tick ​​down the Premier League’s top six and Jordan Henderson is the only English central midfielder. It is a cultural issue Southgate has tried to solve by stacking the backline. Arguably his big mistake in the past 12 days was to move away from that successful defensive system, giving in to the noises off.

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There are limits to the span of any head coach. It will be necessary now to plan for success, to have an honest conversation with his employers about whether he feels he can build another team from here. In the meantime it seems self-evident Southgate and his players deserve better than to be loaded with bile; and that to start the idea he deserves to be sacked is to give into the tides of rage, populism, and digital herd-thought.

Even the unbound rage inside the stadium after a genuinely disappointing night in Wolverhampton seemed to tell us more about the state of England right now, an unhappy, graceless place, the Violet Beauregarde of post-imperial lands, stuffed purple with entitlement, wailing for its golden ticket, than it does about Southgate’s own largely successful attempts to bring this moth-eaten old circus to heel.