How Gareth Southgate made England believe again

Yesterday was probably the first time that it seemed as though the UEFA Nations League was finally fulfilling the purpose that it was brought in for. As England picked up a thrilling 3-2 win over Spain, it was a game that kept us at the edge of our seats even when the score was three nil in the Three Lions’ favor. It seemed as if the charm of international football was back. But more than that, it was a sign of something else too.

Critics have been going on and on about the English national team ever since they reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup some months ago. It was deemed as an ‘overperformance’ that they might not do ever again in the near future. Easy games in the route to the semi-final against Croatia were seen as an excuse for why Gareth Southgate’s youthful side had gone so far when Croatia themselves had played easier sides in the lead up to the game against England in the final four.

For a young side to go that far despite the pressure from every person in the country, it was deemed as a fluke by many. The win over Spain though, attracted more glances than their run to the World Cup did. While the second half wasn’t as good as the first one, the way England managed the game and took the sting out of it repeatedly showed one thing- they’ve come of age.

It is obvious that that one can put that argument down by saying that it was the case of just one game. But if you look at how England have been in the UEFA Nations League so far, it will suggest otherwise.

At Wembley against the Spaniards, England did struggle sometimes but created enough to deserve a point. And unfairly enough, Danny Welbeck’s stoppage time goal was taken away on the allegation that the former Manchester United man had fouled his former teammate David de Gea, when he hadn’t done so. It helped Spain come out as 2-1 winners in a game where England deserved a point for how they had played.

Fast forward to the behind closed doors game against Croatia in Rijeka, England probably deserved to win that too. They were the better team and hit the bar twice and created far more than Luka Modric’s Croatia did. The 4-3-3 formation did take time in coming into full effect, but it certainly did.

Against Spain though, we saw two different sides of England. One that involved taking the chances when they fell. Big chances, in fact. And the second side involved digging in and getting the result against a formidable Spanish side when goals always seemed to be around the corner. They kept taking the sting out of the game and managed the game to perfection. And Gareth Southgate’s tactical changes of switching from a back four to a back three worked perfectly as having an extra man at the back allowed England to nullify the aerial threat that Alvaro Morata was providing.

It was probably the most complete and satisfying performance from an English side in the past 15 years or so.  If there’s anything that it is down to, then it is down to how much Gareth Southgate knows the English game.

If you look at the side that now plays regularly for the Three Lions, there is one common thing between almost all of them- Southgate knows them from his time as the England Under 21s boss. He knows them from top to bottom, knows how they will play in what conditions and know where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

The decision to bring on Nathaniel Chalobah was met by surprise and anxiety by many, but Southgate knows him better than anyone else. The Watford man has appeared 97 times for the England junior sides and has done a job for Southgate in the past multiple times. It was his first England cap, but it would not have seemed so for a man who’s played for the country on different levels a bit less than hundred times. Above all, Southgate has complete faith in him and that’s what matters to young players.

If Roy Hodgson would still have been the manager, England might not have seen the emergence of so many youngsters in the national side. It would have been a case of same old, same old. Jadon Sancho, James Maddison, Harry Winks or Ben Chilwell would never have been called up, perhaps. It would have been a team full of hyped superstars who have nothing more to prove in their careers.

Southgate though, has somehow made the English crowd identify with this team. Every time a player gets selected, it seems as though he is one from the English crown and he is that kid who dreamt and that kid from the streets of Salford who made it big. The human element to stories like these grab your attention. It makes the people feel connected to them even more because they are not superstars. They are a hard-working bunch of individuals who leave their hearts out on the pitch.

Since Southgate knows them better than their club managers, he knows how to get the best out of them. While he was lucky to have little pressure on him when he took the job, the first thing Southgate did was installing a system that the team would play the game. Possession football was seen as the way forward and the players were selected on that basis, as Chris Smalling was left out because he wasn’t a ball-playing defender.

Harry Maguire, who has played under Southgate for the England Under 21s, was called up because he is a ball-playing defender and he enjoys the manager’s trusts. And players were selected not because they were good, but because they know how to play the brand of football that Southgate wants them to play. That’s the sign of a proper leader- someone who knows how to impose his authority on a bunch of players.

On top of that, Southgate is not the kind of personality who is seen as a footballing greyhead like the England managers of the past. The very look of his face gives you the impression of a man who is young and bright and every press-conference he gives shows you the progressive thinking that he sticks to.

Of course, he knows how it feels to let the country down and he had many things to turn around in the World Cup. He was transformed into a meme of the late 1990s when he missed that penalty for England against Germany in the 1996 EUROs semi-finals. He had a monkey of his own to take off his back and after years of seeing English football struggle in a mess, he knows what sparked the downfall. He knows what started it. It was probably him. And there he was in the World Cup, all ready to stop the carnage and make things look bright again.

Yesterday, it was another reminder of how after 22 years of taking his country down into a footballing abyss, Southgate knows how to take England out of that abyss. And he has already done that.