As Gareth Southgate boarded the flight from Doha on Sunday morning, he genuinely had no idea whether this was his last duty as England manager. He admitted in the immediate aftermath of the France defeat that he is “conflicted”. What was particularly striking was how he stated the boos at Molineux during the 4-0 defeat to Hungary earlier this year had got to him, and how he has found much of the last 18 months “difficult”.
Some who know Southgate now firmly believe he will go, that his “energy” for the job is at its limit.
It should be stressed that he did feel similar after Euro 2020, which he said still haunts him much more than the 2-1 quarter-final elimination on Saturday.
It is why he doesn’t want to make any decision over the next few days. Southgate knows that would be a mistake, and potentially lead to a “wrong call”. He instead wants to come back with a clear mind, and talk things through fully and rationally with the FA.
There is one thoroughly logical reason to stay. This squad is young yet experienced, and could well be in their proper prime by Euro 2024. It is tantalising. Players like Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham will be even more rounded than they are now, a tournament in Qatar where everyone among the England staff was so struck by the psychological leap they’d made since even Euro 2020.
The team are now so close, which even this defeat illustrated.
“I think we’ve given a really good performance against a top team, which I think was a significant psychological step for those players,” Southgate said.
It’s now about making that final step, which is down to the very finest margins. It is no longer a case of overcoming profound flaws or gaps. Those have been eroded by the revolution in youth coaching and the medium-term management of this team, that Southgate deserves real credit for.
The squad love him. The overwhelming mood is that they want him to stay. They feel his man-management, in particular, brings something more out of them as a collective. The fact that England went “toe to toe” with France, in a way that would have been unimaginable for many of his biggest critics just a few months ago, is the ultimate testament to all of this.
It was typical Southgate, mind, to even equivocate on that.
“I know France are a bit more counter-attacking so it is a little bit different from a possession team who can pin you back. We wanted to be bold in the tournament and I think we went toe to toe with them and yeah, the players should be really proud of what they have done.”
That is just his nature, which makes him so thoughtful.
It is also why there is logic to the arguments against continuing. The “energy” that Southgate mentioned is essential to the discussion.
These roles require full commitment and conviction, especially with everything around them. That’s something intangible, that can’t really be overcome by any appeals to what you might miss out on by leaving the role.
Either a manager has it or he doesn’t. It’s a lot less likely they do after six sapping years. Only a proper mental rest will allow everything to settle down enough to see the truth; whether he can go again.
There is another element to that, mind. It is not whether Southgate has the energy. It is whether he has that truly exacting quality, that mental step of his own – whether he is actually the manager to get England over the line.
That matters at this kind of level, especially with the team so close.
While there can be a feeling in modern coaching that everything happens by process, that still only makes you competitive. It puts you in the right area. It doesn’t necessarily put you in first place, though. That can often require something extra, something exacting.
Figures who know the England squad well are now wondering whether Southgate actually has this.
“He’s never won anything,” one source said. “You look at his record, and then look at that of Didier Deschamps.”
That can matter. It can translate into decisions like whether to go for it, whether to gamble, whether to make the risky move that makes the difference.
We haven’t yet seen that from Southgate. His substitutions remain so judicious, as if conforming to a handbook. It could be seen in how he planned to bring on Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling before Olivier Giroud’s goal on Saturday, but then he proceeded with the same changes after the ball had hit the net. It no longer felt like the right response. It forms the one remaining criticism.
But this is also the argument. Over six years, he has nurtured and coached England to the point where the margins are now so fine. He now has to give himself sufficient mental space to ruminate on that.
There was one instructive moment, when Southgate was asked whether he would watch the rest of the World Cup. There was hesitation.
“I don’t think so… I don’t really know. I am interested to see how it goes but I don’t know.”
That position could describe his thinking on the job itself. He is minded to leave it, but the urge is still there.
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