Gareth Southgate’s job as England Under-21 head coach is a work in progress and his lack of interest in succeeding Roy Hodgson is a welcome boost for the young squad that has begun to thrive under him.
When Dan Ashworth, then the Football Association’s director of elite development, launched England’s DNA masterplan in 2014 he spoke of fostering an English style of play which would seamlessly run through to the senior national side. It would form the fabric of England’s coaching at every age group and players would drop off the conveyor belt ready to go.
“We have a mantra that the only thing that changes is the size of the shirt,” he said. “The ability for us to deal with the ball, to press early when needed, to dominate the middle of the pitch ... that’s a philosophy.”
Ashworth appointed Southgate in August 2013 with this philosophy in mind, and the manager has obeyed: his young side press high, dominate possession in virtually every match, and try to increase the tempo in the final third to unravel opponents. It is this understanding of the so-called England Way which makes him a convenient choice to fill Hodgson’s shoes, at least on a temporary basis – and a crucial part of the youth setup’s future.
Since a hugely disappointing 2015 European Under-21 Championship when England finished bottom of their group, Southgate’s latest crop have shone. In his three years in charge he has an unbeaten qualifying record – 12 wins and three draws. They are top of a competitive qualifying group for the 2017 edition, and his stock rose last month when England won the Toulon Tournament, beating Portugal and France along the way.
It is easy to overemphasise the significance of winning in Toulon – there is only one knockout game, the final, and games are made up of 40-minute halves – but England won all five matches playing some excellent football, and the competition’s best players were the gifted Chelsea midfielders Lewis Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Southgate is producing a positive evolution along exactly the lines Ashworth drew.
Off the pitch he has dealt with the role’s political demands. He was not afraid to clash with clubs over selection for last summer’s tournament, and was allowed to take a strong squad to Israel for the finals in 2013, and to Toulon. He has spoken eloquently about the problem of England’s best young talent getting such little game-time for their clubs, and the addition of Jack Grealish to his ranks has been a small coup.
All of which suggests Southgate’s steady hand on the tiller should not be jolted now. Ashworth, now the FA’s technical director, is integral to deciding upon Hodgson’s successor. Would Southgate’s progress with the Under-21s be worth disrupting to take an interim role, a kind of footballing vote of no confidence?
Southgate’s appointment, even as a temporary fit, would not deal with the most critical issue, the problem the FA’s Euro 2016 inquest must highlight: when the pressure increases in a tournament environment, England’s players appear racked with nerves. The next manager must be a leader who inspires confidence from the touchline. Southgate may have shown he has the right touch with young players but it is difficult to make a case for himas the man to command the senior England dressing room.
The reality is that the options are scarce. Sam Allardyce probably does not fit the FA’s DNA profile. Eddie Howe would be a brave choice; he is clearly a talented coach, but it would be like throwing a promising, unbeaten boxer into a ring with three actual lions. No one ever comes out of the England job alive, it seems, and Howe still has plenty to achieve.
Manuel Pellegrini hardly oozes inspiration but he does tick plenty of boxes. He has managed at the highest level, with major trophies on his CV and experience in England, where he has said he would like to manage next after leaving Manchester City.
Sounding not dissimilar to Ashworth, he told the Guardian in May: “What I want is to recover the ball as near to the other box as we can and when we have the ball, play. If I don’t have a really interesting [job offer], I will stop until I find one. Of course I would miss it. The challenge keeps me alive.”
If the FA does choose to look beyond the pool of English managers, offering Pellegrini two years would be a better fit than handing Southgate one temporary season in charge.
After the Toulon celebrations died down Southgate reflected on the progress of his squad. “I think it is a shot in the arm for youth development in our country, which always gets knocked. Our belief is that we do have good players – they need an opportunity to play and a lot of these boys haven’t been playing. That is some of the motivation I give them, to, ‘Go show people what you’re capable of’. It’s always in their own hands really and I think they will take great confidence from having got through to a final and all that required. I think it will inspire them, I think it will inspire others to want to be a part of it.”
If England’s youth are to be the lifeblood of the senior team then Southgate is right to want to carry on with what he started. Acting as caretaker for Arsène Wenger or anyone else, is not cause enough to disrupt that work.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010