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The subtleties of Southgate

• Posted in Football • By JoeBaker

In a physical sense, football didn’t come home in the end, as Gareth Southgate’s England fell in extra-time in their World Cup semi-final to a Croatia side ahead of them in fitness and, ultimately, quality. However, in a more sentimental sense it did, with the English public more connected with the national side than at any point since the European Championships of 1996. A sensational World Cup deservedly won by France will live long in the minds of England fans who had no real hope or expectation for a young and inexperienced team in Russia.

The man behind it all was Gareth Southgate, the former under-21 manager who many saw as an uninspiring choice. We often ponder how much a coach can really influence what happens on the pitch. Yet the meticulous preparation Southgate and his coaching staff put into this World Cup undoubtedly had an enormous impact, with many referring to him as a new, modern type of coach for others to learn from. With that in mind, here are the five main subtle Southgate methods that had such a transformative effect and have got England supporters thinking that those many years of hurt may soon be coming to an end….

Settle on a style and stick to it

It has been one of the great hypocrisies of England fans and media in the past that we have criticised the rigid tactics employed by the likes of Capello and Eriksson, only to then be quick to doubt managers who try to think outside of the box. When Southgate first introduced his 3-5-2 formation at the end of the World Cup qualifiers with a focus on retaining possession, use of wing backs and playing out from the back, many of us questioned him. Why leave the changes so close to the actual tournament? What if we don’t have the individuals to play in such a way? Many said it was a mistake. Yet Southgate is a real student of the game and had assessed England’s past weaknesses at big tournaments. Het set on a style of play and stuck to it, trusting his and his staff’s communication and coaching skills to educate his players on their individual roles and how all the cogs fitted together. For the first time in a long time, and unlike many others in Russia, England had an obvious style of play, and an appealing one at that. Players bought into it and excelled.

Be bold

Part of having an unclouded vision of how you want your side to play is having clarity over the best players to fit the system. Despite knowing all his decisions were being scrutinised, and that any mistakes could easily lead to him losing his job, Southgate made big choices that could have backfired. That they haven’t is testament to his judgement. Right back to when he dropped then Captain Wayne Rooney to get more pace in the team, it was clear this was a manager unafraid of making the decisions he feels are right for the side. Dropping Joe Hart, a man who had played almost every qualifying game, for an international novice in Jordan Pickford who is better with the ball at his feet is another. He left Jack Wilshire at home to liberate the more dynamic Deli Ali and Jesse Lingard in midfield and turned Kyle Walker into an impressive right sided centre back, enabling Kieran Trippier to flourish into perhaps the best full back/wing back in the tournament. The confidence shown in John Stones, a man who barely started a game in the second half of the season for Man City, paid off with the man from Barnsley supreme throughout. And what of giving Harry Kane the captains armband? The fact he won the Golden Boot says it all…

The personal touch

Not many England managers have a song universally sang about them during World Cups, but Southgate did – and a big reason for this was the way he handled himself in front of the media. Always composed, clear and focused. You can only imagine how well this translated to the players on the training ground. It was widely reported that they respected Southgate immensely for how he engaged with them, the care and interest he showed in each individual and the clarity with which he expressed his tactics and motivations. The players easily got on board with his vision. An example would be how he was determined, despite the possible ramifications, of changing the whole team for the final Group game against Belgium to ensure every outfield player got to make an appearance at a World Cup and felt valued. The harmony of the team was everything for Southgate and it showed in the way they worked for each other on the pitch.

Mental fortitude

One of the most memorable moments for England was one that most of us could hardly believe happened. For the first ever time at a World Cup, England won a penalty shoot-out. Not only was it a further example of Southgate’s meticulous preparation but a sign of the mental fortitude he had ingrained into players whose mental state had been trained as much as their physical one. Let’s not forget England conceded an equaliser in pretty much the last kick of normal time of their last-16 match and had looked leggy and deflated for most of extra-time. They even fell behind in the shoot-out before first Pickford with a great save and Dier with a composed spot-kick won it. Too often in the past England have crumbled when the going got tough in tournament matches. In Russia such a scenario never looked likely.

Freedom of expression

Finally, the confidence the players felt in their manager was mirrored by his trust in them on the pitch. Rarely have England internationals been given such a freedom to express themselves, particularly in a World Cup. In the end they didn’t quite have enough quality to get past Croatia, or indeed Belgium in the third-place play-off, but for once England’s whole side was given the opportunity to enjoy themselves in the system they had learned so well – from attackers in the final third to the back three bringing the ball out from the back. Rather than constantly worrying about making a mistake, players were given the assurances they needed to prove how good they are.

Southgate has proven himself an unlikely hero. He has a lot to learn, as do his team. Yet is that not exactly why this England team is so exciting?

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