The England winger Jack Grealish brought his PlayStation to Qatar. He still hasn’t touched it. Every evening at England’s World Cup team base in Al-Wakrah, at around the time most of their predecessors would be retiring to their hotel rooms, England’s players instead congregate in the courtyard to watch the football on a big screen, play cards and just hang out. There are giant beanbags and sun loungers, fairy lights and a Christmas tree. The club-based cliques that have riven England squads past are a distant memory. In fact, pretty much the only time anyone recoils from social contact is when defender Kyle Walker invites Dave, a stray cat whom he has adopted, to eat with them at the table.
This is one of the happiest and most united England squads in recent memory. International football can never truly replace the intimacy and camaraderie of club football, but here England have come about as close as it is possible to get. Many of the side are veterans from previous campaigns, in Russia in 2018 or at the European Championships in 2021. They have been locked together in pandemic bubbles. As Jordan Henderson puts it: “We’ve been through things together.”
Win or lose, this World Cup will be another entry in the collective memory bank. Of course events on the pitch will stay with them: the 6-2 thumping of Iran, the lawless drubbing of Senegal in the last-16, the emergence of 19-year-old Jude Bellingham as one of the world’s leading midfielders. But when this group of England players reminisces about Qatar 2022, it will be the moments in-between that have left the strongest impression: the friendships, the long evenings in the courtyard, the raucous parades that greet them in the hotel lobby when they return from a win. None of this makes you a good team on its own. But nor was any of it inevitable. And so perhaps the Gareth Southgate years will be measured not in trophies or win percentages, but in happiness.
The job of the international coach is increasingly a specialist position. For most of their existence, contact with their players is minimal, restricted to the odd message or phone call. There simply isn’t time to drill intricate tactical patterns or meaningfully improve players. And so a large part of the brief is to create an atmosphere in which success can flourish, to devise a system in which everyone feels comfortable, to make preparations for those unfathomably intense few weeks in which everything is at stake. There remain legitimate questions over Southgate’s footballing acumen, his ability to change games or keep opponents guessing. His detractors will point to the two crushing defeats against Croatia in 2018 and Italy in 2021 as proof that Southgate is a great guy but not a great coach. But in terms of defining a culture, he is perhaps the most influential and successful England men’s coach in half a century.
It is worth remembering the toxic inheritance Southgate was bequeathed when he took over from Sam Allardyce in 2016. And this was a failure not only of results but of attitude. England camps were often unhappy places: dominated by senior players, divided by club allegiance and instinctively hostile to the media and the public. Failure was essentially priced in. Penalty training was rarely given adequate attention. Before Southgate, England’s penalty shoot-out record read: played eight, lost seven. Since 2018 it reads (at the time of writing): played three, won two.
Whatever England achieve in Qatar, whether in the quarter-final against France or possibly even beyond, Southgate has left his mark. And yet there remains a school of thought in England that after six years in charge, the Southgate era is reaching its natural conclusion. That, given the wealth of youthful attacking talent at its disposal, England’s often conservative style of tournament football requires a rethink. That there comes a point when the same voice giving the same messages begins to lose its potency. Germany, who persisted with their 2014 World Cup-winning coach Joachim Löw for far too long and have now been punished with two successive group-stage exits, are learning that to their cost.
And yet, this is not a role with a surfeit of outstanding candidates. Few of Europe’s top club managers would be tempted to give up their immersive day jobs for the prospect of seeing their players once a month. Even if a Thomas Tuchel or Mauricio Pochettino could be enticed, would their intensive, detail-rich style fit the more languid pace of international management? Of the English candidates, Eddie Howe, Steve Cooper and Graham Potter have impressive bodies of work but little experience of elite international football. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney have the latter, but not the former. Besides, which of them would be comfortable with the unique heaviness of the England crown, its outsized expectations and bespoke demands, the hordes of disgruntled Englishmen convinced they could do a superior job?
At which point, a solution presents itself. The next European Championships in Germany are just 18 months away. Southgate is contracted to 2024. The players know and admire him. He is yet to underachieve at a major tournament. Might the best thing simply be to go all-in on Gareth, give him another shot at glory? Southgate is not the coach a significant proportion of England fans want. But he may still be the coach England needs.
[See also: The risky genius of Ben Stokes]
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special