The past 150 years of soccer history has been the tale of the game slipping away from the country that invented it. Soccer is one of England’s most successful exports, but the farther away it traveled, the less its inventors were able to control and dominate it. Until the 1940s, England largely stayed home, playing and usually beating competition from Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. It wasn’t until 1949 that England lost at home to foreign competition. A year later, they appeared in their first World Cup, a group-stage defeat that included a 1-0 loss to the United States—to this day one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. In 1953, England took its first home loss to continental competition: a 6-3 thrashing at Wembley at the hands of Hungary’s Mighty Magyars.
And while England remained competitive at the international level, including a championship on home soil in the 1966 World Cup, the game has evolved independently of the nation that created it. Hungary, Germany, Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain all took their turns at shaping the game over the past century, while England, for various reasons at various times, remained relatively isolated until the formation of the Premier League in 1992. Today, soccer is like a prosperous young adult making its own mark on the world, while England is like its disappointed mother, whom it doesn’t call as much as she’d like.
But even though England has long been part of the game’s upper middle class—and nothing more—for generations, it’s only in the past decade that that realization has sunk in. It wasn’t until the current World Cup cycle that the Three Lions chose a manager befitting their needs: Gareth Southgate, the reluctant England manager, and the perfect man for one of the toughest jobs in soccer.
At the end of the 20th century, England alternated between relative success and humiliation: They reached the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup and Euro 96, but failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and exited in the group stage of Euro 92 and Euro 2000. In response, England hired its first foreign manager in 2001, the stylish Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson, who marked the first of five consecutive permanent England managers to leave the job in some measure of disgrace:
- Eriksson reached the quarterfinals of World Cup 2002, Euro 2004, and World Cup 2006, then resigned after an undercover News of the World reporter approached Eriksson in January 2006 while posing as a billionaire investor and recruited him to manage Aston Villa after the 2006 World Cup. That scandal resulted in Eriksson and the Football Association agreeing to part ways after the tournament.
- Steve McClaren, Eriksson’s assistant and former Middlesbrough manager, failed to qualify for Euro 2008. The coup de grace was a rain-soaked 3-2 home loss to Croatia, during which McClaren paced the sideline under a now-infamous umbrella.
- Urbane Italian Fabio Capello led England to World Cup 2010, where England scored unsightly group-stage draws against Algeria and the U.S., a 1-0 win over Slovenia, and a 4-1 round-of-16 beatdown at the hands of Germany. Capello resigned mere months before Euro 2012 after a disagreement with the FA because he thought John Terry--who’d been accused of racially abusing Queens Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand--should carry on as England captain, while the national federation disagreed.
- The seasoned and pragmatic Roy Hodgson managed England to another penalty shootout loss in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal, a group-stage exit in World Cup 2014, and a 2-1 defeat to Iceland in the round of 16 in Euro 2016 that dealt a serious blow to the myth of English soccer exceptionalism.
The fifth was England’s first truly pragmatic manager of the modern age: Sam Allardyce, a jowly, avuncular specialist in squeezing points out of less talented teams by any means necessary. With Allardyce, there was no pretense of style, only a thirst for results. Even Hodgson, as pasty and wrinkled as Margaret Thatcher’s soul, was a respected manager in continental Europe after stints with Inter Milan and the Swiss national team. Not Allardyce—his fleshy, ruddy noggin was to be the face of new English pragmatism.
Until, following one game (a win) and 67 days in charge, he was fired after running his mouth to another undercover journalist, leaving U21 manager Southgate in charge until a replacement could be found.
At the time, Southgate’s major qualification for the job was that he was there. A defender during his playing days, he never played for one of England’s big clubs. He was capped 57 times for England, but his biggest moment with the national team was a missed penalty that knocked England out of Euro 96.
Southgate captained a Middlesbrough squad that won the League Cup in 2004 and made it to the UEFA Cup final in 2006 under McClaren, and when McClaren left to join Eriksson’s staff before World Cup 2006, Southgate retired and took over as manager, where he was fine for a while but eventually got the club relegated and himself fired in 2009, ending his only previous senior managerial gig.
Unlike seemingly every other major English coach, Southgate didn’t really campaign for the England job even while serving as England manager, but after two wins and two draws, including three clean sheets, he got the permanent job anyway.
Because of its exalted position in the game’s history, and because the Premier League is the richest league in the world, England seems like a special soccer nation. Even as the fans have adopted a fatalistic outlook on the heels of generations of decline and going on 30 years of irritating penalty shootout losses, they exist at a weird intersection of demanding pity for suffering heartbreak while simultaneously demanding attention for their special geographic and cultural situation. They’re like Mets fans, but with worse food.
Eriksson and Capello were attention-grabbing hires, while Allardyce was a showy act of self-abnegation, a gigantic grinning, bus-parking hair shirt. Southgate, whose England playing career wasn’t really grandiose enough to be tragic, was just there. The idea of some dude falling into such a hotly scrutinized position is something Gogol would’ve dreamed up if they’d had soccer back then.
Except Southgate, England’s manager-for-lack-of-a-better-idea, is on the verge of the promised land.
Rather than cram whatever players he has into a set tactical system, Southgate has adapted his approach to fit his players. Right now, England is producing large numbers of pacey, physically strong players, many of them drilled in the press-and-counter schemes of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. So Southgate brought a team to Russia that’s based not on skill or possession, but on speed. One of England’s greatest positions of strength right now is fullback. Meanwhile, 24-year-old center back John Stones has spent the past two years playing the ball out of the back under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, so Southgate is playing a 5-3-2 with wingbacks, and playing the ball out of the back through Stones and his Man City teammate, converted fullback Kyle Walker. It’s not stylish, but it’s organized, and so far it’s effective.
Southgate’s most notable achievement since arriving in Russia has been England’s success on set pieces. A soccer manager can’t make pitching changes or call a gadget play on fourth-and-goal, but he or she can exert significant influence on restarts, specifically corners and free kicks. Southgate has drawn inspiration from how basketball players use movement to create space on a relatively small court, and turned England into a dead-ball juggernaut, with half of their eight group-stage goals coming on set plays.
England qualified for Russia 2018 without a loss, going 8-2-0 in its qualifying group, scoring 18 goals in 10 games while conceding only three. After a dramatic 2-1 win against Tunisia, Southgate’s England throttled Panama 6-1 to secure qualification to the knockout round. In Southgate’s 21 games in charge, England’s only three losses were by one goal each to France and Germany in friendlies, and to Belgium in the last game of the 2018 World Cup group stage. The Belgium game, England’s first competitive loss under Southgate, came after both teams had qualified for the knockout stages, and both teams rested many of their starters.
The squad rotation for the Belgium game, and the loss that resulted from it, brought Southgate under fire for the first time in his England tenure. By finishing second in the group, England faces a tougher round-of-16 game, against Colombia rather than Japan. Japan, which gave Belgium all they could handle in the round of 16, still would not be as tough a test as Colombia, though after that the draw opens up: England is probably the best team on its side of the bracket, while Belgium faces Brazil in the quarterfinal, with the winner of France-Uruguay after that.
Until then, his greatest misstep may have been a literal one: between England’s first two games in Russia, Southgate fell while on a run and dislocated his shoulder, resulting in his showing up for a team meeting in a sling. But even that minor calamity burnished Southgate’s everyman charm. The gaunt, unassuming 47-year-old former defender is easy to like. Unlike his predecessors, Southgate has no legacy to protect, so he’s defaulted to relative openness and honesty with the press, within limits. For instance, Southgate announced his 23-man squad, a youthful and relatively inexperienced group, three weeks before FIFA’s deadline. “If you have got 28 or 30 who think they might have a chance, then there’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety within the games. For me, it’s much better to get the 23 secured and work from there,” Southgate said.
In the wake of the loss to Belgium, which in addition to the implications for England’s knockout draw hurt captain Harry Kane’s chances at the Golden Boot, Southgate issued a simple message: trust me. It’s an easy message to buy into. Southgate’s plan, while apparently controversial, is clearly articulated, reasonable, and still unfolding. Southgate is not only taking calculated risks, but being honest about it. If it doesn’t work out, not only has he already experienced international rock bottom, he never really wanted this job anyway. With nothing to lose, he can afford to coach to win.
Southgate reminds me of a gag from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where nobody who wants the office of President of the Galaxy is allowed to hold it, because the kind of person who’d seek that office is not to be trusted with it. English managers, from McClaren to Allardyce to failed candidates like Harry Redknapp and Alan Pardew, spend their careers angling for this job, which Southgate managed to get without ever particularly aspiring to it. And so Southgate isn’t running England like a stylistic statement or a vanity project—he’s just trying to find the best 23 players he can and setting them up to play as well as they’re able.
It’s not often that an unassuming man reluctantly ascends to such a grand position, but Southgate might well avoid tragedy by his own lack of grandiosity. He’s the perfect manager to not only take advantage of England’s low expectations, but exceed them.