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Southgate has created an England the players love but now comes acid test | Gareth Southgate

There is something magical about Lord’s cricket ground and it is particularly striking when it lies empty, when the sense of history, beauty and grandness rises out of the stillness.

Gareth Southgate wanted his England footballers to experience it, to drink in the aura and so he took them there for a walkabout on the immaculate outfield. The twist was that he did so on Tuesday morning, before the final Euro 2020 group tie against the Czech Republic that night.

It was the perfect example of Southgate’s desire to stimulate his players in ever-different ways, to keep their minds open and relaxed, to cut through the tension of a tournament and there would be another one the following evening.

Job done in the 1-0 win, qualification to the last 16 secured as group leaders, this time it was a barbecue at the squad’s St George Park training base with a guest appearance from Ed Sheeran, who performed some of his songs. He even gave a brief rendition of Three Lions.

Overlooking the scene in reallotted bedrooms were Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell – the players who have had to isolate after their contact with Scotland’s Billy Gilmour, who returned a positive Covid test on Monday. Southgate wanted them to feel included.

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If Southgate has done one big thing right in his near five-year managerial tenure with the senior England team it is to create an environment in which the players feel calm and comfortable, clique-free and united, ready to perform.

It may sound simple but is nothing of the sort when a group of young blokes must be largely cooped up for a period of weeks. Remember the 2010 World Cup disaster under Fabio Capello? A key reason why that went badly was his prison-style regime.

Southgate has used all his knowhow from his previous role as the England Under-21 manager and, indeed, as a 57-cap international to create a set-up that the players want to be a part of rather than find excuses to avoid.

Marcus Rashford may need a shoulder operation but was determined to play at Euro 2020.
Marcus Rashford may need a shoulder operation but was determined to play at Euro 2020. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/The FA/Getty Images

Visitors to St George’s Park over the past few weeks have been able to feel the positivity and confidence of the squad and it was significant when Marcus Rashford said on Thursday that he had played through pain for much of the season and may need a shoulder operation after the Euros – the emphasis being on the timing. The Manchester United forward could have missed these finals, the excuse was there for him. He did not want to take it and his club were similarly happy to support him and Southgate.

Southgate has managed to recreate the atmosphere of a club by keeping things interesting, sometimes by thinking out of the box; trying to develop the players as people and treating them as grownups. Transfer talk during competition, for example, is not banned. Southgate trusts that the priority will remain England.

Half of the battle with international management is to construct the platform for expression and, if it worked for Southgate on the run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, he now faces an acid test.

Germany are a part of Southgate’s history because he will always be associated with missing the crucial penalty shootout kick against them in the Euro 96 semi-final defeat at Wembley. Now they return for a last-16 meeting on Tuesday that needs little hype but will get it all the same.

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Southgate felt that he let everybody down with his miss from the spot and, deep down, he has to have thought that the rematch all these years later could bring a note of personal redemption. It is a script with silver-screen quality. That said, Southgate is not a person who allows his mind to drift back. His view is that life is for the living and it goes on.

Gareth Southgate reacts after missing his penalty to hand Germany victory in the Euro 96 semi-final.
Gareth Southgate reacts after missing his penalty to hand Germany victory in the Euro 96 semi-final. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

From the outside, it is easy to see the Germany game as a potentially legacy-defining moment for Southgate, one of those points that he and the national team have built towards since he first joined the Football Association in 2011 as the head of elite development. Back then there was introspection after the World Cup campaign under Capello, which had ended in the 4-1 defeat against Germany in the last 16, and Southgate’s work over an 18-month period was heavy on addressing the disconnect between club and country.

What is comes down to for Southgate is to transpose all the meticulous planning and culture shaping for a brighter future into something tangible for today; to get his methods to yield a vital victory.

The criticism of Southgate at this tournament has been that his team have played with a lack of adventure and, more broadly, he has shown himself to be a manager who lines up with six defensive players and four offensive-minded ones; sometimes, even, seven and three. He can turn the dial towards attack by asking the full-backs to press higher or one of the deeper midfielders to advance and there is flexibility within his approach but, against the better opposition, it tends to be structured rather than thrilling, with the substitutions mainly like-for-like.

It has been said that Southgate’s team lack identity but this is not true. The identity is clear; it is just that some fans do not like it – mainly because they can see the abundance of creative talent in the squad. They want five attack-minded players in the team and it is the principal tension of the Southgate era, which has coalesced at these finals around the inclusion or otherwise of Jack Grealish.

Jack Grealish on the ball against the Czech Republic. His inclusion or otherwise has been a source of tension among England fans.
Jack Grealish on the ball against the Czech Republic. His inclusion or otherwise has been a source of tension among England fans. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The question is, if it has to be a choice, whether supporters would rather be entertained or win and it is obvious – and understandable – where Southgate sits. With regard to the Germany game, could resilience, order and well-practised moves be the answer? It has worked for Germany in the past. On the other hand, to grind towards a result and fall short invites a mighty backlash, especially when the attacking potential is factored in.

It is an aspect of the jeopardy in Southgate’s professional life but he will not run from it, having long vowed to address challenges on his terms, being true to himself – in this case, perhaps, his instincts as a no-frills defender. In the book that he released last November, entitled Anything is Possible: Be Brave, Be Kind & Follow Your Dreams, he details his journey from “skinny, introverted teenager” to someone unafraid to go for things in life, even the so-called “Impossible Job” of England manager.

Southgate has made it more possible by being honest and empathetic, invariably pitch perfect with his man-management or speaking on wider issues of the day. Throughout his career, he has won respect in difficult situations, beginning in an old-school and extremely tough Crystal Palace dressing room.

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Now he just needs to win against Germany.

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