Matt Maher: No matter what happens, Gareth Southgate’s a big success

Sunday’s 3-0 win over Senegal saw Gareth Southgate rack up another landmark as England boss.

England manager Gareth Southgate with Senegal's Bamba Dieng
England manager Gareth Southgate with Senegal's Bamba Dieng

The victory was their sixth in a knockout match during his reign, equalling the number achieved by the Three Lions in every major tournament between 1970 and him taking charge in 2016.

It was also the first time England have won knockout matches in three consecutive tournaments.

By pretty much every measure, these are times of almost unprecedented, sustained success for the national team. It really comes as no surprise to learn the FA are desperate for Southgate to stay on until at least the end of his current contract, due to expire after Euro 2024.

Quite how he feels, no-one is quite sure. There have been sufficient whispers suggesting he may be ready to depart, no matter how the rest of the World Cup plays out.

What is undeniable is for all his achievements and for all the hoodoos he has banished during six years at the helm, there remains a significant number of England supporters yet to be convinced.

Wins which would have been lauded when the Three Lions sat at rock bottom following the embarrassing Euro 2016 exit to Iceland are now quickly dismissed in some quarters. No sooner had the final whistle sounded on Sunday then the critics were already at work on social media. “It was only Senegal, just wait until they play France,” being the general theme.

Tomorrow night, then, would appear an opportunity for Southgate to shut a few people up. At least that is the theory. The reality is there would still be those ready to jump on the manager’s back should England then fail to go on and win the tournament.

Southgate himself is responsible for the raised expectations and has generally been happy to embrace them, describing the quarter- final meeting with the French as an “acid test” for an England team with grand aspirations. His sights are set on lifting the trophy nine days from now.

Still, the tendency of some to downplay the magnitude of what has come before frustrates. A common accusation is Southgate benefited from “easy draws” in the 2018 World Cup and at last year’s European Championships. And yet the list of opponents beaten by England in knockout matches between 1966 and him assuming the reins – Paraguay, Belgium, Cameroon, Spain, Denmark and Ecuador – could hardly be described as stellar.

Though it is true England have struggled to beat the major nations, it is hardly a problem unique to Southgate. Prior to losing to Iceland, their exits in the knockout stages of major tournaments since 1966 had come at the hands of Germany (four times), Argentina (twice), Portugal (twice) and Italy.

Beating the reigning world champions tomorrow would be seismic in that context, the most important win of Southgate’s tenure so far and arguably England’s greatest at a major tournament since the glory of ‘66. It would firmly establish them, beyond question, as one of the strongest teams in world football.

Yet so too would a strong performance in defeat. What tomorrow shouldn’t be is a referendum on a manager who is chiefly responsible for bringing the team to a point where the notion of England beating France at a World Cup feels possible.

An increasing narrative last summer during a disappointing (but largely meaningless) Nations League campaign was Southgate risked wasting a uniquely talented group of players. Even if you buy into the claim – and the emergence of Jude Bellingham makes it easier despite the continued weaknesses in central defence – the Three Lions now possess their strongest squad for several generations, it is still Southgate who has created the culture for it to flourish and consistently made the right calls on team selection. The performances of Jordan Henderson against Wales and Senegal was a reminder that, just maybe, the manager knows how to utilise the players at his disposal better than outside observers.

Perhaps the fairest criticism of the 52-year-old has been his in-game management, most particularly in the defeats to Croatia and Italy in 2018 and 2021 respectively. England led in both matches and there was a sense Southgate failed to respond quickly enough when the tide turned against his team.

But then he is hardly alone on that score. Hansi Flick, a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich, has been widely pilloried for his second-half substitutions during Germany’s costly group stage defeat to Japan. Maybe England would have beaten both Croatia and Italy had Southgate done things differently. But then again, maybe not. Football matches tend to be decided on many variables, of which tactical tweaks are only one.

For Southgate’s critics, the biggest question is who they would want as his replacement? Or, more pertinently, how much faith would they have in the FA to make the right decision?

The truth is the FA got lucky with Southgate, who would never have got near the job had Sam Allardyce not got himself caught up in a newspaper sting. He was the caretaker who turned out to be the ideal man.

When the FA has had time to make a decision, the appointments have generally disappointed. Sure, Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel – the two men currently touted as Southgate’s most likely successors – have considerable experience. But then so did Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello and they failed to deliver a fraction of the progress seen under Southgate.

Tomorrow represents a chance to take another big step but whatever the outcome, it pays to remember those strides already taken.

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