Mind the gap: Southgate’s challenge now is bridging promise and triumph

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Mind the gap: Southgate’s challenge now is bridging promise and triumph

Southgate you’re the one. England’s single greatest upgrade at this World Cup: they have a manager who sweated the small stuff that makes the big stuff. The great skill of Gareth Southgate has been to manage the details around this team, to implement the “elite sport” habits of British Olympic and cycling success through sports science, psychology, useful gimmickry. A carefully-schemed team culture has been fostered. Players have been picked on the basis of ability to “buy into” this, as well as physical types: fit, athletic, good habits. England borrowed the “No Dickheads” rule from the All Blacks. And they’ve become likeable. This isn’t surprising. They haven’t got any dickheads. The fact this kind of quality is being rewarded is progress in itself. But still not quite whole again.

Southgate talks constantly about development. He will know the tactical, game-management part of his World Cup was less of a feature. This is understandable. Southgate is still inexperienced. England don’t have much on the bench to play with. Still, though, England’s substitutions were a non‑event. The tactic of pumping long passes forward in the semi-final became predictable. The entropy after half‑time against Croatia was reminiscent of other tournament deaths. Back in 2002 Southgate himself noted that England needed Winston Churchill but got Iain Duncan Smith from Sven Goran Eriksson. Watching on Wednesday night from his latest franchise-league outpost as England ran out of ideas, Sven might just have sighed a little to himself. There is much to ponder, as well as build on.

Be ruthless

The best thing about the past year has been Southgate’s understated ruthlessness. From the overdue ousting of Wayne, to the refusal to take anyone to Russia who wasn’t fit or in form, there has been a heartening element of coldness to the manager’s judgment calls. That must now be applied to his group, to the next step. No favourites. No favours. Keep on pruning back the dead heads.

But stick with the system

Keeping the ball, passing carefully. This was the revelation of England’s tournament, a genuine first right up to the moment they started sending it long and trying to hit Raheem at the Luzhniki. This was modern. This was progressive. This actually looked like international football. Don’t turn back now.

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Keep on keeping calm

At what point does going on about how you don’t go on about your team become going on about your team? How easy is to remain humble when everyone talks constantly about how wonderfully, spectacularly humble you are? It is easy to imagine that the hype will now be ramped up again, the expectations lumped on once more, the train cranked back into gear. The test from here is to keep that throttle low, to accept that England beating Panama, Tunisia and Sweden should be a cause of enjoyment and fun. But it’s not yet a sign of the second coming (home).

But it was still good

There is a sub-set of human being who will maintain England somehow fluked a semi-final, that any team they managed to beat must, by definition, be useless. This is clearly misguided. England beat Sweden, Ukraine and Wales at their last three tournaments combined. They have just won three games and a shootout in a month. To denigrate this is sour grapes, the agony of seeing somebody you automatically dislike doing quite well for once. Either that or a degree of English arrogance that insists ultimate victory is the only kind of victory. Portugal drew with Iceland, Austria, Poland and Hungary en route to winning the last European Championship. Is Cristiano Ronaldo also a hair-gelled fraud? The sensible view is that this team performed with energy and adopted a set of tactics that worked against opponents at the same level. The parts that succeeded can be built on. The rest is just noise.

Lay off Harry

There will also be carping about Harry Kane’s proximity to the golden boot. Three penalties, a deflection and two tap-ins. Just Fontaine must be bricking it. But Kane actually showed his ruthlessness at this World Cup. There is a reason his six goals were carved out of only 12 shots. England just didn’t make many chances from open play. Luckily they had a one-shot sniper on board when the moments came. There may be issues with this team. But Kane really isn’t one of them.

Harry Kane

England have a goalkeeper

They didn’t before the World Cup. They do know. Jordan Pickford may still make mistakes, may have some dips, but he was probably England’s best player in Russia and deserves a long run at this now.

Sterling job

It has become hard to assess publicly Raheem Sterling’s role. Demeaning, racially tinged coverage of his personal life by the news pages of some newspapers has created a polarised position. Halfway through the tournament it was being suggested that in fact Sterling was playing wonderfully well, with the implication that to say otherwise was either further victimisation or a sign of football blindness. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Sterling performed the role given to him with energy, pulled the centre backs around and created space. But a large part of his job as a No 10 is to make or score goals and he lacked precision at vital moments. Sterling is one of England’s best players. But this simply wasn’t his best position.

The Modric gap

The evening changed in Moscow as Luka Modric began to get on the ball. Suddenly this felt like a two‑tier game. Hold everything: the talent’s here. England have no comparable midfielder, the kind of player who helps you beat the better teams. But there is playmaking talent in the age groups that might be identified and groomed. If only Pep Guardiola could get properly stuck into Phil Foden for the next two years. Pray, England fans, for a Manchester City creative midfielder injury crisis.

Modrid embed

Don’t go on about Phil Foden now

Or Jadon Sancho. Or Callum Hudson-Odoi. Or Xavier Amaechi. Or Sven Hibblethwaite-Thomas. There will be an urge to fetishise England’s younger talent, to suggest some great new brave shining dawn is on the verge of breaking. But those younger players must battle with Premier League short-termism just for game time, and will require above all patience and the right to make the odd wrong turn. Stay calm. Again, defy the hype. And Sven Hibblethwaite-Thomas doesn’t even exist anyway.

Enjoy the brief, giddy hiatus from toxic attack

Good luck Gareth. History suggests you’ll need it. One of the side-effects of success has been the neutralising of a notoriously demanding press pack. Southgate has become bulletpoof through this World Cup, wearing a suit of armour in the form of three precious tournament wins. The wider culture has co-opted him. The news pages want to know whose shirts he wears. But it won’t take much. A few poor qualifying results. The realisation that England have an essentially defensive style. You can see how that could play out. All the more reason to stay patient, and for Southgate himself to keep working and improving, always trying to run ahead of the surf.

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