England under Gareth Southgate: rampant individualism and a saviour complex | Jonathan Liew

Estimated read time 9 min read

Nice to see your own fans throwing beer cups at you. And to be fair, not all England fans were hurling sud-soaked projectiles at Gareth Southgate as he strode towards them at full time in Cologne. Let’s not paint the whole fanbase with the same brush. Some of them were making “wanker” signs. Some were booing. Some were giving him the thumbs down. Most had already left to catch the tram. So, you know, got to appreciate the nuances there.

As for Southgate, there was a kind of sarcasm in his calm applause, like a cyclist applauding the motorist who has just sent him flying into the kerb. In a way it was a gesture loaded with sacrificial defiance, a trial of character and duty: the father of the nation nobly bearing your hate, your insults and your refundable plasticware.

The longer Southgate stays in this job, the more he leans into the idea of it as a kind of solemn calvary. After the game he spoke about “not backing down” from confronting criticism, because it helped to take the heat off the players. Such martyrdom. Such leadership. And yet, talking to England fans into the early hours of Wednesday morning, what struck me most was not any sense of vitriol or personal animus or even disproportionate anger. The most common refrain was a kind of resigned disappointment, an opportunity being wasted, a golden inheritance slipping from our grasp. “We’re shit and we know we are,” a few shirtless lads sang on their way back to the tram stop, and everybody chuckled.

On German television the language may have been a little more temperate, but the message was broadly similar. “No matter who they play against, they are gone,” the former Germany midfielder Christoph Kramer said. Per Mertesacker agreed: “The English have a bit of a problem with their identity at the moment. Southgate is only concentrating on himself and his ideas.”

There is a deep and incongruent curiosity here. England have always brought large numbers of fans to tournaments, to the point where the fanbase has become – for good and for ill – an intrinsic part of the culture and noise around the national team. And yet for most of my lifetime that influence has been barely discernible in – and occasionally wildly at odds with – the football itself.

Mertesacker has a point about identity. Since I started watching them, England teams have played long‑ball football, possession football, passive football, counterattacking football, sweeper, Christmas Tree, 4-4-2, 5-2-3 and now whatever this is. Why, uniquely among major footballing teams, has English football so rarely had a distinguishable style, one that expresses something of itself as a nation?

Jude Bellingham looks dejected at the end of England’s goalless draw with Slovenia in CologneView image in fullscreen

Close your eyes and try to imagine Spain, or Italy, or Brazil, or France, or Germany, or Argentina, or the Netherlands. The names and the faces can change, but essentially we have a basic idea how these teams try to function, what they look like, what they feel like. What does England evoke in the popular imagination? Two right-footers on the left flank? A bunch of guys called Terry? Gazza doing the dentist’s chair against Scotland?

Perhaps this is why England being bad feels like such a particular strain of footballing incoherence, why when things start to go against them they look so uniquely listless and disjointed. There is no set of values to fall back on, no sense of institutional self, no collective story to tell. “England DNA” – remember this? – was essentially the Football Association’s attempt to define basic English footballing principles from scratch, but ultimately was so generic as to be meaningless. (Passing, pressing, pace: wow, why has nobody else tried this?)

So what do English fans love? Let’s assume that goals and chances are universal stimulants. What specifically gets an English crowd roaring? We love last-ditch sliding tackles that put the ball out for a throw. We love wingers going around the outside and winning corners (and pumping up the crowd as they place the ball on the quadrant). We love the feeling of freedom and possibility when a good dribbler breaks into wide open space at throttling pace. We love urging a player who definitely should not be shooting from distance that they should shoot from distance. We love the sensation of being 1-0 down but, you know, definitely coming back into it these last few minutes.

What links all of the above? None of it really corresponds with the kind of stuff that wins games, particularly international tournaments played at a sedentary pace, which require a solid understanding of compromises and percentages. The beloved corner is really a very inefficient means of creating a chance. Sliding tackles are not a reliable method of winning the ball. Shots from distance are usually ill-advised. And deep down, we know this. We are, above all, a nation of gamblers and thrill-seekers, underdogs and fatalists. We all know how it ends. We just want to feel something in the meantime.

Phil Foden takes a shot for England in their final group game at Euro 2024View image in fullscreen

The best England teams I watched – Venables, early Hoddle, early Sven, early Southgate – got this. The most purely joyful era of modern English football begins with an unlikely 1-0 friendly triumph in Amsterdam in 2018, ends about half an hour into the European Championship final in 2021 and is defined above all by the sense of playing for something more than winning.

It was an era defined by enterprise and optimism, by new dawns and hope, by Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, by sticking it to the doubters and the moaners and the snobs and the racists. When there wasn’t a ticking clock or a legacy to be secured. When nobody was talking about this being England’s “best chance” or “last chance”. When winning was an aspiration, not a cast-iron obligation.

What happened to that sense of fun? Time curdles all things, and for Southgate spending eight years in the same job has largely institutionalised whatever insurgent spirit he once possessed. You get used to the trappings, the carriage, the way the temperature of a room alters subtly when you walk into it, the same faces in the press conference, the same four office walls. And so perhaps it is no surprise that the identities of “Gareth Southgate” and “the England manager” have fused to the point where nobody – least of all Southgate – can remotely conceive of anyone else doing it, let alone doing it better.

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But Southgate is not uniquely to blame for England’s predicament. It should have raised a lot of red flags when, after Qatar 2022, the players started lining up to advocate for him staying in charge. Reports would emerge that they loved playing for him, loved the environment, were urging him to carry on. In retrospect it was a warning that the warm and pleasant atmosphere Southgate had created since 2016 had gone too far in the other direction, towards a comfort zone. Perhaps the upshot has been visible here: a group of richly gifted players all possessed of main-character energy, all convinced on some fundamental level that they alone are the protagonist deserving of indulgence.

So you have four guys who all want to play in the No 10 position and will wander towards it even when assigned somewhere else. You have Harry Kane getting bored and dropping into midfield, Jude Bellingham stomping around wherever he wants, Phil Foden routinely trying the kind of audacious long-range shots for which – had he tried them at Manchester City – Pep Guardiola would have sold him to Burnley. We’re talking 35-yard volleys here, not 20-yard curlers into the top corner.

You have talented young players such as Adam Wharton and Kobbie Mainoo and Cole Palmer and Anthony Gordon sitting on the bench because Southgate can’t bear a whole week of having to explain why he subbed off Bellingham or Kane. Because, ultimately, the defining characteristics of this team – and perhaps the closest thing English football has to a genuinely organic identity – are the same traits that define England as a country: rampant individualism and an incurable saviour complex.

Southgate, for all his humility and basic decency, has been sucked into the same vortex. The saviour complex has come for him, too: a man who once had ideals and visions, but for the past couple of years has been sanded down to a grand act of self-protection, squatting in the job, constantly triangulating and second-guessing himself, torn between bold statements and masterly inaction. A coach whose sole remaining principle is the vague idea that England should win something and he should be the guy to do it.

England fans may be masochists, but they’re not idiots. They will have noted the way Southgate has steadfastly refused to pander to them over the course of his reign: in terms of playing style, personnel, politics. Wrapped up in all this was a kind of unspoken pact: that these were the trade-offs necessary to build a tournament-winning team. All of a sudden, these same fans are realising that Southgate is not going to deliver on his side of the bargain and mixed in with the disappointment of the present is a kind of mourning for the missed opportunities of the past: the handbrakes not released, the gambles not taken, the second goal against Italy not pursued.

There is a paradoxical route out of this mess. If England’s travails stem from losing their sense of fun and collective spirit, from fixating on endings rather than journeys, on managing legacies rather than nurturing principles or values, then perhaps the reverse can also be true.

Forget winning the Euros. It’s probably not going to happen. First good team they come up against and all that. But there is still time – perhaps only 90 minutes – for this team to be true to itself, to take us on a journey, to think hard about what an England team should sound like and feel like and look like. And then to go out with no doubts and no regrets: wanting the ball, wanting to do thrilling things with it, football for the sake of football; football as a vessel of joy and hope, the national team as an articulation of a collective dream. We all know how it ends. We just want to feel something in the meantime.

Source: theguardian.com

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