Euro 2020: Gareth Southgate and England play the long game in pursuit of ultimate goal

“I know if I pick that team and we don’t win, I’m dead,” joked Gareth Southgate as Wembley partied around him on Tuesday night. Except he was not joking.

England manager Gareth Southgate reacts at the end of the Euro 2020 round of 16 match between England and Germany at Wembley. Picture: AP/Frank Augstein.
England manager Gareth Southgate reacts at the end of the Euro 2020 round of 16 match between England and Germany at Wembley. Picture: AP/Frank Augstein.

Exaggerating, yes, but if England had lost to Germany – even unfortunately, even on penalties – he would have been a dead man walking professionally.

He did it anyway. Again. England won. Again.

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The Football Association are squarely behind Southgate but he is far too clever to kid himself that it counts for much.

England fans celebrate during the UEFA Euro 2020 round of 16 match against Germany at Wembley Stadium, London. Picture: Nick Potts/PA

“Any manager is going to be grateful for the total backing of the board and chief executive,” Southgate had responded in the pre-match press conference. “Internal backing is important but in this role in particular external backing is just as important.”

Once England fans – any team’s supporters – decide they have had enough of you, having your bosses behind you is of limited value.

If the European Championship was a popularity contest, Southgate would have been knocked out long ago but he is playing the long game. Supporters are shrewd enough to see it too. They may argue with his every selection but there is no “Southgate out” bandwagon rumbling through the country, no root vegetables his face is being photoshopped onto just yet. If he wins the actual competition, the only people to rival him as the most popular in the country will probably be his own players.

Enough people are canny enough to realise that even playing a way they do not like, a way they do not think is the best, this manager could actual win this tournament with these players.

England players celebrate after Harry Kane scores his side's second goal during the Euro 2020 round of 16 match against Germany at Wembley. Picture: Andy Rain/AP

Every England manager has his every team selection debated and dissected across the country.

In tournament summers the fortunes of the Three Lions has such a bearing on the mood of the nation it makes matters like the Batley and Spen by-election pale into insignificance. As surely as waistcoat sales went through the roof three years ago, there will be a spike in births in late March and most of the boys should be named Thomas after Herr Muller, never mind in recognition of all the doubters.

Southgate probably gets it worse than most, partly because he has so many options that he has no choice but to leave good players on the bench – and at home – and partly because thanks to Tim Berners-Lee would-be managers do not even have to go down the pub or to work to tell the world that England’s has not got the faintest idea.

Even the Wembley scoreboard operator has been at it. When the games against Scotland and Germany were 0-0 in the second half, images of Jack Grealish flashed up on the giant video screens at either end of the ground, hints so heavy they should have needed a licence.

England fans cheered their approval each time. “Super, Super Jack...” they chanted in the raucous stands on Tuesday.

Southgate would have to have been deaf and stupid not to get the message and in the end, he did bring Grealish on in both matches but you can bet your life he was not bowing to public opinion. Southgate just does not do that.

“You can’t please everybody in terms of picking a starting XI,” reasoned Harry Maguire on Tuesday. “Gareth studies the game and picks the team he thinks is the best one to go and win the football match. I’m sure he will continue to do that. Everyone has an opinion and thinks differently.”

Like some of the worst, the world’s best managers can be very stubborn creatures.

Joachim Low’s refusal to let go of his 3-4-3 has been frustrating German supporters for a while but his World Cup and European Championship-winning medals mean he is entitled to do as he pleases. And does.

The 3-4-3 shape Southgate used against him has been a bugbear for England fans in the last 12 months too, part of a wider frustration with the manager’s innate conservatism. Grealish’s only start has been in a dead rubber, Jadon Sancho has played seven minutes, Harry Kane has been persevered with as if he was the World Cup golden boot winner and most prolific striker in the Premier League for years. Kieran Trippier played left-back instead of any left-backs against Croatia, and Phil Foden has not made it onto the field for the last two games.

In time, though, Southgate has had an annoying habit of being proven right. It is a good job he is too classy to gloat.

Jordan Pickford was being questioned until his late-season revival and injuries to Nick Pope and Dean Henderson put a stop to that. Kalvin Phillips would not have won a public vote to play against Croatia but surely would for the Ukraine game. Raheem Sterling kept his place despite being both out of form and not Grealish, and has scored three of England’s four goals in the competition. Kane has the other.

Maybe England could be better still if Southgate was a bit more positive, let another flair player or two sneak into his XI. Maybe if England go out on penalties on Saturday after a 0-0 draw with Ukraine the doubters will be able to say: “I told you so.” Maybe we are better managers from our armchairs than a man with 57 caps, 58 matches as manager including a World Cup semi-final on foreign soil and apprenticeships with Middlesbrough and England Under-21s.

Then again, maybe not.

You can say Southgate is too defensive, you can say he is biased towards this player or against that one but beneath that calm exterior and diplomatic corps skillset lies a tough man who knows his own mind and is not afraid to trust it.

A man who is not scared of professional “death” is one to be seriously reckoned with. Like it or not.