Is it now or never for England manager Southgate at Euro 2024?

Published on: 12 June 2024

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BURTON UPON TRENT, England -- It might just be now or never for Gareth Southgate. England's men's team are one of the favourites at Euro 2024, as much because of their recent tournament record as the presence of the most exciting crop of attacking talent for a generation.

On paper at least, the combination looks irresistible. Jude Bellingham has taken his game to new levels at Real Madrid. Harry Kane has broken multiple records during his debut season at Bayern Munich. Phil Foden's increased end product helped secure Manchester City's fourth consecutive Premier League title while Bukayo Saka led Arsenal's charge to stop them.

In all, along with Cole Palmer, Ollie Watkins, Jarrod Bowen and Dominic Solanke, there were eight Englishmen across Europe's top five leagues with at least 20 goals in all competitions this season. The next best was reigning European champions France with four, while Belgium and Netherlands each had two and Spain had one.

Solanke didn't even make the squad, nor did Jack Grealish or Marcus Rashford as Southgate opted for younger alternatives in a front-loaded squad huge on potential with Palmer, Anthony Gordon, Eberechi Eze and, most remarkably, Adam Wharton -- who only made his senior debut against Bosnia and Herzegovina last week -- making a successful late run for the plane to Germany. The pressure on Southgate to mould these exhilarating component parts into an all-conquering, attack-minded side has grown with each week these players excelled at club level.

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"I know Didier Deschamps has had extreme, unbelievable success with France and gets criticised for the makeup of his teams as well," Southgate tells ESPN. "I think people would like fantasy football. Very few teams really play that.

"The biggest coaches in the world have balance to their teams. The most successful teams have balance and there will always be debate about that until you put a team out on the pitch and people see whether that balance works or not."

The difference, of course, is that Deschamps won the 2018 World Cup in Russia and reached two more finals, at Euro 2016 and the 2022 World Cup.

Southgate has taken England closer than they have ever been to adding another major honour to their sole 1966 World Cup win. Since assuming the role in 2016, he has guided England to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup, the last Euros final and the quarterfinals in Qatar. The final step is clear.

It is a record of steady progress -- perhaps tapering a little in Qatar after a game of fine margins -- during which Southgate's thoughtful and meticulous methodology has been his greatest strength, understanding tournament pragmatism and recognising England's modest international record sitting beneath the hyperbole and glamour of the Premier League.

Gareth Southgate has led England closer to winning a major trophy than any manager since the 1966 World Cup. Is Euro 2024 his last shot at glory? Paul Ellis - Pool/Getty Images

There is, though, a sense that while he remains a fantastic ambassador grounded by innate humility, Southgate has to prove he can evolve and adapt to the new reality: England possess one of the best squads at Euro 2024 and can secure victory if they seize the moment. The 53-year-old's contract expires in December and a decision will be made on his future after this summer's finals in Germany. Sources have told ESPN that England's Football Association would like him to continue. England flew out to their tournament training base in Germany on Monday. A few weeks beforehand, Southgate sat down with ESPN to reflect on his eight years in charge and address whether prevailing criticisms of him as excessively conservative are fair.

"I think there've been different stages [developing] on the route as a team," he said. "At the start, we felt we had to give the team stability. If I go back to Russia, we had an inexperienced defence, less depth in midfield, no wide players in depth to be able to change it consistently. But I think we went further than people thought we might in that tournament.

"I guess a lot of those observations would've been around the Euros final and probably some Nations League games where there were a really strange sets of circumstances. I don't think anybody would say that was the case in Qatar and I don't think anybody could say that's been the case in the qualification [campaign], [winning] away in Italy, at home against Italy, Ukraine.

"We haven't always clicked in every one of those games and in an attacking sense, but we haven't held people back. There will always be, I think, for any coach, [a thought of] 'OK, what's the ideal balance here of the team in terms of numbers of attacking players?' Because if you get killed in transitions, which I see sometimes happens to big teams, then the coaches get killed for being naïve."

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Arguably Southgate's greatest skill has been to reconnect the team with the country. It is easy to forget the widespread disillusionment that followed England's humiliating exit to Iceland at Euro 2016, regarded in domestic coverage at the time as among the worst results in the team's history. Manager Roy Hodgson stepped down, Sam Allardyce lasted one game and 67 days in charge before leaving in disgrace following a newspaper sting.

Southgate, then under-21s manager, did not wish to be considered to replace Hodgson. He was reluctant to succeed Allardyce, believing himself not to be ready and only took the role on a four-game interim basis, winning twice and drawing twice. Encouraged by those results, he accepted a permanent offer in November 2016.

Southgate made 57 appearances for England, playing every minute of England's run to the Euro 96 semifinals where he missed the decisive penalty in defeat to Germany. For years, that moment has threatened to define him. Having travelled to four tournaments as a player in total, Southgate is fully attuned to the England national team's complicated psyche: a blend of a fear of failure, the pain of penalty shootouts and the ever-increasing wait for another trophy.

Southgate has redefined what it means to play for England. The weight of the shirt has been eased, a sense of "What might be?" replacing "What could go wrong?" He has taught this generation that they can write their own history and not be trapped by the one he is a part of.

FA chief executive Mark Bullingham told ESPN: "Gareth has shaped a hugely positive culture in which pride in the shirt and the honour of representing England shines through. This has played a part in the transformation we have seen on the pitch in our attacking play, consistent results and strong tournament record.

"Overall, there is a natural togetherness within the squad based on trust, friendship and belief that feeds into performance. It is about the players being united, whatever their club or background, and a focus on telling their own individual story that encourages them to express themselves without fear of failure. This bond extends to the coaching staff, the support team and colleagues across Wembley and [England's National Football Centre at] St. George's Park.

"All of us feel invested in the team's incredible adventure and their determination to make the country proud. Most importantly, the fans are at the heart of it all because Gareth has restored a close connection with the national team that is vital for success."

Kieran Trippier scored the opening goal in England's 2-1 loss to Croatia in the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup, Gareth Southgate's first tournament as manager. Ryan Pierse - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Southgate is an excellent communicator, grounded in reality and skilled in the delicate touches. Staff have previously received individual handwritten letters before tournaments and had hotel rooms adorned with personalised pictures. Sources have told ESPN that the scents used at St. George's Park will be shipped over to Germany -- just as they were in Russia -- to make England's training base smell like home.

During the last Euros, an ice cream truck visited the players after training and one night, singer Ed Sheeran serenaded the group at a barbecue. St. George's Park is adorned with messaging about maintaining standards: in the indoor pool and hydrotherapy room, one such sign reads: "Three Lions: It's the habits away from the pitch that prepare us for the next battle."

Kieran Trippier, who has earned all of his 48 caps under Southgate, points to a bonding exercise with the Royal Marines, organised in 2017. It coincided with Trippier's first call-up and served as a stark introduction to Southgate's methods: players were told they could make one call to family or friends and then they would have to hand in their phones for 48 hours, whisked away by bus to a commando training centre where they were issued with military gear, told of a 5 a.m. wake-up call and required to complete a gruelling Marines obstacle course.

"When I first arrived, I got chucked in the deep end when we went to the Marines," Trippier told ESPN. "I was thinking, 'Is this like every camp?' Things like that are brilliant to bring people together. Going on from the 2018 World Cup, some players come and go [but] Gareth has created what it means to represent England and we all bought into that obviously.

"Gareth deserves huge credit for that. Me personally, I've got a lot obviously to thank Gareth for giving me the opportunity to represent my country and having that trust in me as well."

Results have vindicated this attention to detail. England's 2018 World Cup semifinal loss to Croatia was their first appearance at that stage of the competition for 28 years. Along the way, they won a World Cup penalty shootout for the first time, against Colombia, which was also their first win at the knockout stage of a tournament since 2006.

Their run to the Euro 2020 final loss on penalties to Italy -- their eighth penalty shootout failure -- was only the second final in their history. This time, they beat old rivals Germany in a knockout game for the first time in 55 years. A narrow defeat to France in the 2022 World Cup quarterfinals in Qatar came with a performance where they matched the holders before key moments went against them -- most obviously Kane's 84th-minute penalty miss -- in a 2-1 defeat.

Gareth Southgate's contract as England manager is due to expire in December, by which time he will have been in the job for eight years. MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

And so to Germany, where England will boast an array of attacking options that are the envy of almost any other nation. Southgate has certainly countered one of the accusations usually levelled against him -- excessive loyalty to out-of-form players -- by jettisoning half of the 26 players he took to Qatar a little over 18 months ago including Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips, selections he used to expend considerable political capital in defending.

The tactical conservatism that many criticise Southgate for is anchored in his deep understanding of England's history. They rarely win tournament knockout games on foreign soil, and their two final appearances have both been at Wembley. But what Southgate describes as balance, others view as unnecessary caution. In trying to take these final steps to glory, do England need to be scared of their own shadow any longer?

"I think we've evolved through every tournament, really," he said. "There's probably a clearer defined way of playing now over the last couple of years.

"Over the course of the team, probably going into Qatar and since then we've been very clearly either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. I think that's been a more aggressive way of playing. Better with our pressure higher up the pitch and similar patterns with the ball that we've always had."

Opposing coaches certainly have respect for Southgate's ability. So much so in the case of United States coach Gregg Berhalter that he sought out Southgate for advice on how to progress his own thoughts.

"The conversation I had with Gareth in 2018 had a huge impact on how we went about redefining the USMNT culture and refocusing on creating a team environment in which players can thrive," Berhalter told ESPN.

The pair came head-to-head during the group stage in Qatar, when USMNT held England to a 0-0 draw. A source within the FA told ESPN that the USMNT lineup covered more ground in that 90 minutes than any other opponent during Southgate's tenure.

"As I said before the World Cup, England had an immensely talented team," Berhalter added. "We knew we were going to have to have a disciplined performance in order to keep them off the scoresheet and we were able to accomplish that."

At the age of 20, Jude Bellingham is already entering his third major tournament and is a key member of Gareth Southgate's England team. Eddie Keogh - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

The emergence of Bellingham is perhaps the biggest single evolution in England's probable lineup since Qatar. The 20-year-old started all five of England's matches at the last World Cup, primarily as a No. 8, but his move from Borussia Dortmund to Real Madrid has been transformative.

Bellingham helped Madrid win both LaLiga and a 15th Champions League crown operating in a more advanced role, which asks a difficult question of Southgate: Does he build a team around him in that No. 10 position or nudge him into a left- or right-sided No. 8 to accommodate another forward?

"With Dortmund he was a more attacking-minded No. 8," said Southgate. "There's moments he's played as one of the double-No. 6 and he's done that with us a couple of times early on.

"But he's a player that you need to allow the license to go forward and with Madrid he's had a huge amount of freedom, where he's been a false nine most of the season. He has been an attacking player and had a devastating impact on games through doing that. Clearly he's a player you want to allow to make the difference in the penalty box, which he did in our last game with Belgium, for example, late in the game. "And has it changed? We're probably seeing him as a more advanced player than we were two years ago when you're still looking at everything that he might be. Of course when you're playing in a certain way every week with your club, then to do something completely different when you come with the national team is more challenging.

"But he's without a doubt one of the players that needs to be in the team and it's getting the right balance of where do all those players fit and what's the best balance for the whole group."

The focus on Bellingham will be immense. Even at his tender age, he occupies a place in a category reserved for only a handful of players, those capable of defining a tournament.

"He's still 20 years old and a player who we've got to make sure that we look after," said Southgate. "He has had an incredible season with Madrid, certainly the first two-thirds of it. He's had a bit of an injury and missed some football since. But in terms of impact, at arguably the biggest club in the world, you couldn't have wished to have a better start.

"But equally if we're going to win a tournament, lots of players have to deliver. The team has to deliver. It can't just be one player in Jude that has to deliver. And we are fortunate that we've got other players that will score goals, we've got other good players in the team.

"What he has is an incredible mentality at such a young age to grab games by the scruff of the neck when they're going against you and that insatiable desire to win. Even at the young age he is, that has a big impact on the rest of our team already."

Gareth Southgate has left several big-name players out of his Euro 2024 squad including Marcus Rashford (foreground) and Jack Grealish (centre). Eddie Keogh - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Utilising the squad brings us to perhaps the other prominent criticism of Southgate: his in-game substitutions. Often he can be seen in lengthy dialogue with long-time assistant Steve Holland, seemingly debating tactical changes and substitutions.

There are some who believe he should have been more proactive in the last Euros final when leading Italy 1-0, a game which followed a similar pattern to England's 2018 defeat to Croatia: go ahead early but gradually lose control of the game in midfield. He also faced opprobrium for giving Grealish just 207 seconds to affect England's defeat to France in Qatar. Against Croatia, he waited until the 74th minute to make a change. Versus Italy, it was 70 minutes. Against France, it was 79 minutes. In 19 major tournament games, he has made the first substitution of the match only four times.

"The one thing with changes is, the changes that you make obviously play out, the changes that you don't make never do play out," said Southgate. "So when people say we should have made changes in some of the games that we're talking about, I haven't heard them say what those changes should have been.

"So for example, Croatia in the semifinal, would you change tactically to try and pose them a different problem with hindsight? Well, yes. However, part of that would've been altering the midfield and then you're perhaps outnumbered in midfield against [Luka] Modrić, [Marcelo] Brozović and [Ivan] Rakitić. If I'd heard really good solutions to what we should have done in those games, then I might think differently about that.

"The final with Italy, we were a goal ahead and we hadn't conceded any chances of note but the momentum of the game maybe was against us. Was that the moment to go from a back five to a back four? Well, of course because the game plays out and ends up a draw, you'd say, 'Well maybe if we made that change it could have been different.' But we still had an hour playing 4-3-3 and didn't manage to make a breakthrough.

"Ultimately games will always be assessed and reviewed with the benefit of hindsight and as a coach you have to make decisions with the information you have at any given time."

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Centre-back and midfield are areas of possible concern. John Stones spent much of the season playing in midfield for City while likely centre-back partner Marc Guéhi has huge potential but is short of match fitness after missing three months of the season with a knee injury, returning for Crystal Palace's final three matches.

The reliance on Declan Rice to anchor England this summer is significant given nobody else has experience of playing as a No. 6 -- Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kobbie Mainoo, Conor Gallagher and Wharton are the only other midfielders named in the official squad list. Any injury to Rice would be a devastating blow.

Southgate admits he has taken a gamble on Luke Shaw, too, as England's only recognised left-back. As a natural left-footer, Shaw can provide vital balance and experience to England's new-look defence but the United defender has not played any football since Feb. 18 due to a hamstring injury and will only be fit, at best, for England's second group game against Denmark on June 20.

But, however those variables pan out, it all comes down to this summer. And in a further sign of how Southgate has shifted the mindset, England are embracing the challenge of judging themselves solely against winning the competition. They shied away from it publicly three years ago and spoke hopefully in those terms in Qatar. But this time Southgate said: "[Winning] was the target for the last Euros. We were so close. That was the target in Qatar because once you've got as close as we did in the Euros, then that has to be.

"You can't talk to the players about anything less than that. They wouldn't be excited. They'd wonder what you were thinking. I think the belief is there. The results over a period of time are there. That doesn't mean we are the only team going there with that belief and with good players and a good team. But for us that has to be our aim.

"[And] I've learned a huge amount, not only from every tournament but from every camp that you're involved with. The game itself has changed and evolved in that time. The details of how we play have progressed and I've now managed some of the biggest games in world football."

All that is left is to end up on the winning side in the biggest of all.

Source: espn.co.uk

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