He clearly is not happy with the way England have played both for him and in the past
taken their chances. It may well be that when England go to Russia, they will again fail to get out of their group, are gripped by fear or lose once more on penalties.
But something is happening. Something has certainly happened with Southgate. Or, rather, he has been waiting for the time to make that something happen because he has clearly not been happy with the way England have played under him and in the past, and with who has been playing for them. For example, after the Germany game, Southgate was disparaging about the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been England’s default line-up until this point.
If Southgate was regarded as the “safe” option for the Football Association then he is not going to play it safe. Safe is the status quo; safe is going on as we have been. Safe is not having the courage to say that there have been players in the squad who did not deserve to be there; that Chris Smalling is not good enough on the ball; that the clamour to recall Jack Wilshere is resistible – or that it is fair to say because that sounds like the tactic of a man buying time.
“It’s easy to be swayed by needing experience but you can have 100 experiences of the same thing or 10 different experiences that make you a more rounded person,” Southgate said, and if that made him sound more like a teacher than a manager, then so what? As long as he sticks to his principle; as long as he goes with youth.
Southgate has settled on a system – England will play in a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 – and, hallelujah, he will select the players to fit that system rather than bow to the demands to pick the biggest names, or players who have been in previous squads, and then try to shoe-horn a way of playing around that. Square pegs in square holes at last, it seems, which is why players such as John Stones, Loftus-cheek and Chalobah – one of the few specialist holding midfielders available to England – are important.
It is time England made the most of their talented players – but only for the team; for the identity of that team. This is a honeymoon period for Southgate, who celebrates in two weeks the anniversary of his permanent appointment as England manager. The pressure is off with World Cup qualification secured. But he appears to be using his time carefully. Hopefully, having laid out his vision, he will not lose sight of it when the heat is on next summer.
Sticking to his vision: Gareth Southgate is prepared to give young players a chance, even if it means some short-term pain as a result