And then, the world didn’t seem so bleak. England may have lost by a single goal to Germany on Wednesday night, but within that result lay a performance of cohesive verve.
Friendlies belong in a certain context, but given the nature of the side picked by Gareth Southgate and what it represented, the tactical substance shown in Dortmund was still meaningful. For a generation, picking the England team has been an exercise in ego management and so Southgate’s inclusion of Jake Livermore and Michael Keane, both of whom performed admirably, was a welcome bucking of that trend. Players were selected on their ability to play a role within a structure, given specific tasks to fulfill and, by and large, it worked. It’s a simple enough footballing principle, but one which England have neglected for a long time.
This week’s theme has been change. Publicly, Southgate has taken every opportunity to acknowledge the need for modernity. He has talked of learning from examples on the continent and of ridding the country of its island mentality; he appears to be less a head-coach and more a reflection of the Football Association’s intended image.
Rash though we have been to declare tipping-points in the past, this feels very much like England 2.0: smarter, self-aware, and finally in-step with the rest of the world.
Southgate was not a popular choice to succeed Sam Allardyce. Since his first, tentative steps into management at Middlesbrough, he has existed in a virtual vacuum. Between international tournaments, the u21 side he coached – and coached extremely well – attracted little interest, sailing through their qualifying groups with minimum fuss. Regrettably though, that progress typically came in front of sparse television audiences, with the public and press paying no attention until the tournaments proper began. It was a failure, but with clear mitigation: the England squad which travelled to the Czech Republic had lost key players on the eve of departure and looked physically spent before the first whistle had even been blown.
The result: Southgate was just another one of them: a Stuart Pearce, a Peter Taylor, a Roy Hodgson – another face from the merry-go-round and nobody’s idea of a saviour.
But that perception overlooks one of his core suitabilities for his new role. Southgate has not earned a reputation in club football and has no domestic coaching success to speak of and, consequently, is a highly pliable personality and exactly the sort of figure required at this stage of the FA’s “England DNA” roll-out. He is impressionable, broad minded, and influenced by collective thinking. Rather than being imported from the outside, with accompanying rigid ideas and an obstructive ego, his ideology has been grown in a St George’s Park test tube.
Sam Allardyce was and remains his counterpoint. While much of the opposition to that appointment centered on his style of football, it should really have focused on the intellectual contradiction it represented. England’s age-group sides have been built in a specific, homogenised way, and a long Allardyce tenure would have ensured that the senior side operated within an ideological bubble. A manager of his experience and self-regard was never likely to defer to any technical directors or blue-sky thinking, preferring instead to apply his own personal approach. Given what he has achieved in the Premier League over the duration of his career, his self-regard would surely made have him impervious to ideas from below. So while the FA were embarrassed by the way Allardyce left his position, it still saved them from another counter-productive cycle. Allardyce might have achieved tournament respectability, but that would have represented short-term consolation at the expense of more important, longer term objectives.
He was a circumstantial appointment: a reflexive response to the Iceland debacle and a peace offering to fans who have had their fill of embarrassment.
The trouble with that, obviously, is that while supporters assess England’s health through performance at World Cups and European Championships, a truer reading of the association’s functionality has to be taken from beneath that surface layer. It relates to production and development, of teams, players, and coaches, and – to be successful – needs to be governed by a singular approach. England have been searching for a proper international identity for several generations and recent performances across the age-group teams imply that they are in the early stages of developing one. Those who pay attention can see the emergence of a different type of player, more tactically aware and technically dexterious, and also a common coaching strategy which binds the various layers. At the root of England DNA is an approach to coaching which places particular emphasis on that co-operation and continuity, with the aim of not only developing a native style which runs from the youngest teams upwards, but also to appoint or produce coaches capable of creating those conditions.
That’s an all or nothing situation: either everyone under the FA’s employment has to think in the same way, or the result will be a collective failure. Within that context, then, Allardyce was a baseball cap on a three-piece suit, trainers with top hat and tails. He was someone with a distinctive use and real value, but who was still shockingly incongruous. He ruined the image and defeated the purpose.
Gareth Southgate is a bright, edudite person and, conveniently, he played professional football at the highest level in this country without becoming infected by its jingoistic thinking. But to assess him as an individual is really to miss the point: he is the visible part of something much more substantial. That will be a tough sell, because we exist in an age in which head-coaches are defined by their personalities and are judged upon what they are individually assumed to represent. Fabio Capello’s English wasn’t particularly good, so it was easy to reduce all of that era’s failing to that single shortcoming. Roy Hodgson was serious and, some say, dour, and that became a rather neat characterisation of his own teams. But to perform the same trick with Southgate would be an egregiously reductive mis-step, given that neither his perceived mildness nor his lack of bombast are likely to have any bearing on his performance.
Whether this proves successful is another matter. The pertinent detail for now, though, is that the FA have committed to a common direction and aligned their thinking properly. What it can lead to will be proven in time, in ten or twenty years, but the Southgate appointment does now at least give it the opportunity to be fairly judged.