Will Gareth Southgate take off the handbrake after Italy agony?

IAN LADYMAN: Will Gareth Southgate take off the handbrake after Italy agony? England boss begins challenge of raising the bar once again with Qatar on the horizon

  • England gave the country a summer to remember but the work begins again 
  • Gareth Southgate delivered a major final but questions arose in the Italy defeat 
  • The Three Lions boss has been accused of adopting a cautious approach
  • With Qatar on the horizon, Southgate must raise the bar again with England 

It is 47 days since England failed to win the final of Euro 2020. Long enough for Gareth Southgate to get some of the sleep he predicted he would need. Long enough to get over the feeling that, as he put it the next day, he’d had his stomach ripped out.

It is now on to the next challenge, qualification for the World Cup of winter 2022. But much of what happened in the summer will follow Southgate to Hungary where England play in Budapest a week on Thursday. Most of it good, but not all of it.

It is always instructive to see how quickly perceptions and expectations change in football.

Gareth Southgate and England return to action next week for the first time since Italy agony

Back in the second week of July, once England had beaten Denmark in the semi-final of the Euros, Southgate was being talked about as the national coach for the next 10 years. England were in a major tournament final for the first time in more than half a century. The country was grateful.

The morning after Italy won the final on penalties, however, the conversation had changed a little. That Monday, back at St George’s Park, Southgate faced the media for the best part of an hour. He looked devastated.

Commiserations were offered but he was also asked some rigorous questions.

He was asked whether his England team were ‘too nice’ to win big tournaments, whether he had chosen the wrong players for the shootout and whether he had been too cautious — too negative — in his approach in the final. It is this final question that has lingered and it is not just a ‘media thing’.

England’s gut-wrenching defeat at Wembley leaves more questions than answers of Southgate

The Three Lions boss has been accused of adopting an overly cautious approach to the game

Within football, managers, players and pundits have spoken privately about whether Southgate should have been braver once an early goal gave his team the lead that night. Many think he should have. There is a feeling that the game was there to be killed off and an opportunity wasn’t taken.

Other people in the game questioned from the outset Southgate’s fancy for two holding midfielders. At Leeds, for example, team-mates of Kalvin Phillips feel the young midfielder would have benefited from a little more responsibility, a little more of the ball.

It may all seem rather unfair on Southgate, given that his team were unbeaten in the Euros in open play. He has taken England to a World Cup semi-final and a Euros final in his near five-year tenure. But this is football at that level.

Give people more and they want more. And this is why the next week feels more important than it otherwise would, given that England already have a lead at the top of their World Cup qualifying group after three opening wins.

There were also questions of his penalty taker selection as England lost in the shootout

They have a two-point advantage on Hungary and a five-point lead over Poland, who should be their strongest rivals.

Even so, away games against those two with a virtual walkover at home to Andorra sandwiched in the middle a week on Sunday, will be challenging and may tell us a little about England’s direction of travel.

England were deserving of their place in the Euro 2020 final. They grew into the tournament and played clinical and effective football in beating Germany, Ukraine and Denmark in the knockout stages.

Equally, it was — bar the Ukraine victory in Rome — a tournament played at home. It will feel very different in Budapest and Warsaw, and if England suffer a hangover from the summer then things may not go their way.

Certainly we cannot expect Southgate to change much in personnel when he announces his squad on Thursday. Trent Alexander-Arnold can expect a recall after injury ruled him out of the Euros. Injuries to Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden will open the door to Mason Greenwood and maybe Danny Ings, who has started the season well with Aston Villa.

With Qatar fast approaching, Southgate has been tasked with raising the bar once again

Southgate will be pleased the talk about captain Harry Kane’s future at Tottenham is closed for the time being, and will assemble a group of players comfortable with each other and committed to the way the manager works.

He will speak publicly on Thursday for the first time since that miserable Monday morning in July and may feel entitled to remind people that England achieved something significant this summer, something that will serve them well as they work towards Qatar next winter.

Equally, he said last month that he would go away and think about his approach to the final and his use of substitutions. It will be interesting to learn, now that the dust has settled, how he believes he performed that night.

If, as he likes to say, Southgate’s England are a work in progress, then maybe the manager is too. He and his team will likely have to raise their bar once again if they are to reach the ultimate goal in the Middle East.

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