The first time Norsemen attacked England, they came mob handed and tooled up. Over a thousand years later their descendants did so with Icelandic football shirts and a ball. Regardless of method, the effect was the same each time: England and the English thinking shaken up to the thunderous soundtrack of a Viking war cry.
The defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016 concluded a chapter of English football which was unwavering in the monotony of its themes. This country’s impossible footballing expectations remained constant even while its levels of footballing talent oscillated. There had been no settled view on the tactical or philosophical framework to platform the ability our players had. Managerial experience and talent, showered like confetti on England national teams, provided none of the answers to these conundrums. It didn’t matter whether we had the best of either English or continental leadership or whether FA chose to address “underachievement” from the old or new Wembley. England had nothing to offer but more of the same: big talk and little delivery. As the years and tournaments have passed, the drumbeat of the same narrative remained the same all the way until defeat to Iceland mutated the usual disappointment into outright embarrassment.
However, as England set off for Russia for another World Cup, they do so with a rather different perspective on the national team’s traditional challenges. After Iceland (and then the Allardyce affair), we were introduced to a new paradigm in Gareth Southgate. How so? Well, Southgate was not a manager with a strong reputation or extensive list of trophies won, Pizza Hut adverts had made sure to remind us of his association with failure and there was no golden generation of players to turn to. A post that had usually been filled after noisy deliberation and speculated on to the nth degree in print and media was now filled almost by accident. Southgate (appointed as caretaker) was in the right place to impress enough to take the job full time after a series of unorthodox events that had led to the departure of Sam Allardyce.
And yet, maybe the results of the most unexpected of turns could prove to be the ones originally sought. As England defeated Costa Rica on Thursday night, they did so bearing the hallmarks of positive progress that may have a value beyond mere results. The journalist Tim Vickery’s theorises that a football manager’s job is summarised in three tasks: to pick the team, to select the strategy and to set the emotional tone. Consider then how Southgate has approached his job in light of these tasks. As Jack Wilshere, Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney will testify, names no longer dictate inclusion. Strategy is also clear; Southgate with no hesitation has explained to the media exactly what his idea is:
“We have to have to have some consistency in formation and some consistency in what we are asking the players to do…. For me in terms of the way we’d want to play from the back, I think three at the back is a better option…I think the system gives us good stability and it gives us easier solutions for our midfield players as well.”
Then the emotional tone. There was a time when England mangers behaved exactly like politicians of the age with the media. In many respects, Southgate proves that they still do because where once caution and “safe” dialogue were watchwords, “speaking your mind” is now the new normal. As plain speaking public figures become increasingly attractive, the England manager is in step with the latest fashion. A footballing media used to waiting for a slip, trip or fall now have an England manager confident enough to calmly dismiss the opinion of the Foreign secretary as being “of little interest”.
I wondered on the effects of this when I saw Marcus Rashford nonchalantly smash in the opener during that winner over Costa Rica. The goal came shortly after Rashford had performed an outrageous “Rivellino elastic” on the left wing not moments before, casually leaving Costa Rica’s Kendall Watson behind with the indifference of someone stooping to tie their shoelace. This is a player uncertain of his place in the national side and yet here he was making his claim for a place in the team with simple enjoyment and expression of his ability. These are not words said often in relation to any England player, let alone one competing for a place, but then like manager, like player. Why not speak and play as you feel? After all, your manager does.
As Rashford enjoyed his football, he was doing so in the context of other young talent in the team, such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, also doing the same. Loftus Cheek, in an advanced attacking midfield position created one goal and completed 100% of the 34 passes he made. That both players could even play in the first place (as confirmed World Cup squad members) was a reflection new world that Southgate has created for the national team. Promising young players like Loftus-Cheek, Rashford and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold will be seen enough for their football to be heard even in the context of the differing club situations that they find themselves in.
Naturally, bold approaches with squad selection are easier to take when they’re rooted in the context of pre-existing success. Both Loftus-Cheek and Rashford operate as graduates of an English youth footballing zeitgeist whose silverware haul is making an audible clang around the world. Sitting atop an English national team pyramid that contains the current World Champions and U-20 and U-17 level means that Gareth Southgate’s confidence in clear ideas and clear opinions is rooted in strong foundations. However, for all the new ideas Southgate implements, he (like all those before him) will be forced to recognise the power of individual tournament results in determining the English national team’s future. It remains to be seen whether there will be any respect for new ideas, however interesting, if there is a missed penalty or goalkeeping flap that causes an unexpected English defeat.
Nevertheless, in making decisive choices, the incumbent Southgate has changed the direction of English national football in a manner that may yet prove irreversible. One by one the issues that have dictated the national team’s football agenda have been met with answers rather than the repeated fudges of yesteryear. The England captaincy, an issue that used to generate enough headlines to rival Raheem Sterling’s daily exercise of his civil liberties, has been settled pragmatically and without excessive fanfare. A tactical system has been chosen and settled on, with reasons given. Southgate is willing to state his opinion on the footballing and non-footballing issues he is asked about in a way that people can understand and perhaps even respect.
Whether these developments are a recipe for success is to be seen. The national team’s apparent fear of the media and its awareness of its own footballing idea remain challenges to be overcome. However, you see in Southgate a willingness to confront each one and show his working to all in so doing. At the very least, there is a clear example for the English players to follow in creating a new footballing story for the nation that can last beyond this summer. Maybe this time, there’ll be no need for Vikings of any sort to get England moving along in a new direction…
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Also published on Medium.