When Gareth Southgate was first appointed senior England manager in late September, as caretaker for the sacked Sam Allardyce, he looked like a man there under duress. Southgate himself had admitted he wasn’t ready for the job only a few months earlier, when Allardyce had been handed the keys, and he gave the impression that he’d be much happier back with the Under-21s whom he’d managed with success for the previous three years.
Since taking permanent charge in November, however, Southgate has looked more comfortable. He has graduated from reluctant leader into a manager who has embraced the role. He might not have actively sought it out, nor perhaps even really wanted it, but he has now started shaping the job into his own.
Southgate’ status as a Football Association employee before taking the top job has perhaps influenced his desire to think beyond the short-term needs of the England team, to realise that while he will be judged by immediate results, he also has a wider responsibility.
Partly because he was initially appointed as a caretaker, by no means guaranteed to have the job beyond those initial couple of games, Southgate’s thinking seems as if it has been geared towards the idea that if someone else had to take over tomorrow, the transition should be relatively smooth.
You can see that in his handling of Wayne Rooney. Initially Southgate was full of reverence for the England captain, as perhaps one should be. Rooney was selected and kept on as captain, Southgate recognising that not only could his experience be of benefit to the other players, but on a more basic level he didn’t need the rigmarole that would come with instantly dispensing with England’s record goal-scorer.
Steve McClaren learned that, after dropping David Beckham then slightly sheepishly recalling him less than a year later, “statement” decisions like that are often counter-productive. McClaren was trying to make his mark on the job in grand style, but Southgate has done so in a quieter way.
Rooney’s omission from the latest squad was perfectly logical, given that he hasn’t been in the Manchester United side, and Southgate’s handling of the whole thing meant that the 31-year-old’s absence was not nearly the issue it might have been.
Even the apparent inconsistency of leaving out Rooney but selecting another man not in Manchester United’s current plans, Luke Shaw, was dealt with nicely. Southgate explained that he simply wanted to ensure the young left-back, still dealing with the after-effects of last season’s broken leg, knew he was still part of the national side’s plans.
There doesn’t seem to be any particular dogma that might constrict selection. Southgate has a relatively limited pool of players to choose from, so for him to, for example, declare that the old generation must be cast out and only youngsters brought in would be foolish.
Sunderland’s Jermain Defoe has been scoring goals in the Premier League, a couple of other strikers are injured, so the practical option was to recall him for the games against Germany and Lithuania, despite the fact he is 34 and last played for his country over three years ago. Southgate knows — again, perhaps from his experience with the U21s — that international football is a changeable thing, so a manager must adapt.
Indeed, most things are done with that sort of careful thought. His experimentation with a 3-4-3 system in the 1-0 friendly defeat against Germany in Dortmund was not done for the sake of tinkering, even if one might also argue there’s little other point in these games if not to try new things.
It would seem prudent to try that formation simply because of its increasing popularity in the Premier League, but Southgate had another motivation in mind. “The good thing is every coach who plays against us has to prepare for two systems now,” he said, after explaining why he didn’t continue using it against Lithuania.
All of which isn’t to say that Southgate has done everything right. Results have been no better than OK (P6, W3, D2, L1), and there haven’t been many performances more impressive than that either, by his own admission.
Also his decision, before the Germany game, to show the squad his penalty miss from the Euro ’96 semifinal might have been well-intentioned (he said it was to show how someone can bounce back from disappointment), but it also may just have served to emphasise England’s long history of tournament failure and disappointment.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to judge Southgate after six games, and it won’t be even after the World Cup qualification period is over, assuming England make it though.
England’s failure in recent years has not been getting to major tournaments, it’s how they perform once they’re there. We will need to wait until 2018 to know if Southgate really is a success. But for now, in his own understated way, he has made his mark on the England job. And that’s all we can realistically expect at this stage.