Two years ago, the England team lost to Iceland in the first knockout stage of EURO 2016. That loss may well be the lowest point in terms of how the England team was viewed by the public here in England.
While losing to a much-lower ranked nation with just a fraction of the population was embarrassing enough, it was the behaviour of the team that really stuck in the throat. The way the team behaved during that loss represented the England team at their absolute worst.
That was an England team that suffered from arrogance, complacency and a huge sense of entitlement. You had Joe Hart mistaking loudness for leadership, then making a big mistake that made him look an even bigger idiot. You had many members of the England team apparently talking throughout the game about how much they’d have to step it up in the quarter-finals, despite being behind at the time.
But now, there’s a much different feel to the England team. The hubris has been replaced by a quieter sense of self-confidence. The expectations are lowered to a more realistic level. The complacency has gone. And as a result, the team is becoming likeable.
It would be wrong to say this has happened by design. Following the Iceland defeat, Roy Hodgson was replaced by Sam Allardyce, a man who owes his entire career to arrogance, self-promotion and bluster. Had he not been caught offering to show some undercover reporters ways to get around the rules about third-party ownership in player transfers, his England team would likely have been every bit as unlikeable as the ones before, if not more so.
But Allardyce’s downfall has turned out to be good for England. After Allardyce, England appointed Gareth Southgate, then the manager of their Under-21 team, initially on a caretaker basis that turned into a permanent appointment.
Southgate’s first comments showed exactly the type of manager he was going to be. Rather than making bold statements and promising the earth, he instead talked about developing a team that people would enjoy watching.
And, that’s what he’s done. One of the things that Southgate has achieved, that many England managers before him have tried and failed to do, is to establish a clear pathway between the England u21 and senior teams.
Southgate is the first manager England have had that has managed one of the junior England teams. So he has faith in the players he managed at u21 level and has not been afraid to promote them into the senior team. Jordan Pickford, likely to be England’s first-choice goalkeeper and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have made the jump from the u21’s to the World Cup squad and there have been plenty of other young players selected for England during Southgate’s time in charge.
England’s younger age teams have had some great success in recent years, so those players will be encouraged to see a manager who isn’t afraid to pick a younger player. Southgate’s stopped the trend for picking players on reputation alone, instead he’s picking players on form.
Southgate has also changed the way England play. He encourages England to have the confidence to play from the back, something which is viewed with mistrust by most in England. Southgate’s commitment to playing this way was evidenced by his omission of established defender Chris Smalling over fears over his ability on the ball.
He’s also changed the way England line up. People in England fixate on formations, mostly because that’s where their understanding of tactics begins and ends, but Southgate has moved away from a back four, which is an English staple, in favour of a back five.
The beauty of this is that it simultaneously covers England’s lack of a dominant centre back and utilises England’s strength of having good attacking full-backs. Add to that England having two players in Jesse Lingard and Deli Alli that can operate between the opposition defence and midfield and all of a sudden England have gone from being a team playing rigidly to one playing in a fluent way that can create favourable passing angles and matchups.
Southgate has also managed to find a way to benefit from England’s lack of depth. When he named the squad there wasn’t really any surprises in terms of players left out that would have been expected to have been included. This, isn’t a bad England squad at all, but Southgate has had fewer players that pick themselves than other England managers have previously had.
But because of that, Southgate has managed to turn that into an opportunity. Whereas England managers have previously had to try and find ways to shoehorn players into their team e.g Fabio Capello having to accommodate the incompatible Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and Roy Hodgson having to move Wayne Rooney to allow Raheem Sterling into the team, Southgate doesn’t have to worry about that, he’ll feel free to be able to pick the team that he thinks gives England the best chance to win.
Pre-tournament expectations here in England are unusually low. Most fans have a realistic view of this England team, that I think will get out of their group but then fall in the knockouts (my pre-tournament bracket has England losing to Germany in the quarter finals, though Mexico may have just changed that). And, unusually, most England fans think the same and are okay with that.
Similarly, the English media is giving Southgate and his team a much easier ride than other teams have had. Again that is down to Southgate. He’s doing what he said he would. He’s put together an England team that people can see is a work in progress that may pay off further down the line.
Also, the media seems to respect that Southgate hasn’t been the FA stooge that people thought he may be. He has a quiet, measured way of speaking that doesn’t seek to make friends or make headlines.
It may be way too early to praise England. Southgate still hasn’t managed in a tournament. England haven’t won in the World Cup since they beat Slovenia in 2010.
I’m certainly no England fan; but I don’t hate this England team. If they make the quarter-finals, they will have equalled the performance of teams that were in a far better place to have achieved more. And, they’ll have done so without the toxicity of those teams. In doing that, Gareth Southgate may have achieved the impossible, he may have made one of the most unlikeable teams in the world likeable.