Gareth Southgate may be England’s greatest ever manager. So why the hate?

They have a word for it in German: der Briefcasetrainerparadigm, a phrase used to describe a person who is self-evidently good at what they do, but who is still universally regarded as a disaster.

OK, there is no such actual word word. The phrase “there’s a German word for it” is in itself a longstanding red flag, what the Germans call a Fake-Deutsche-Langeswort-Intro. But the concept of how exactly to define or put a scale on success feels very current as Gareth Southgate prepares his team to face Switzerland on Saturday evening in Düsseldorf.

This will be a fourth straight quarter-final for a manager who is now always one game from a likely end point and who is also approaching the ultimate expression of his own peculiar dynamic – what we might call the Southgate Paradox.

It went under the radar in the chaos of last weekend’s victory against Slovakia in Gelsenkirchen. But here is a fact many people will find deeply annoying, even impossible, but which remains demonstrably true. Whatever happens against Switzerland, Southgate is the most consistently successful manager England have ever had. Arguably, on results, Southgate is the greatest.

Wait! Come back. No one is claiming England have been anything but dreadful at these Euros. The manager’s selections have been a mess. The midfield is comically unbalanced. England have looked like a team trying to play football with an unexploded Wehrmacht stick grenade. Proper opponents will rip them apart playing like this. Just imagine the agonies Spain’s wingers could inflict on those flanks. Maybe England are simply building towards a definitive thrashing, a Brazil-Germany in Belo Horizonte, a Watford in the Cup final horror show.

But the wider fact remains that Southgate’s England have reeled off two quarter-finals, a semi-final and a final. In six years his England team have won seven tournament knockout games. Pre-Southgate England had won six knockout games in half a century. This is the most sustained period of success in the history of the men’s England football team.

Taking off the Gareth goggles for a moment, he still needs another final to really establish this. Alf Ramsey actually won one of these, albeit with a fair wind (Soviet linesman v bungled penalties, take your pick). Then again Ramsey also failed to qualify for the 1974 Word Cup and stalled at the first knockout stage in Mexico. Whatever happens now, Southgate can leave as the only England manager never to have openly bungled a tournament while going unprecedentedly deep at four in a row.

Yes, it feels weird to hail Southgate as the GOAT. In part because the thing in front of you only really gets to look good when it is gone. But also because there is a pretty good case that Southgate is not even a very good manager, that he fails the in-game tactical stuff, that he would implode in elite club football.

Gareth Southgate is on the receiving end of heavy criticism despite going unprecedentedly deep at four major tournaments in a row. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

This may well be true. But it reflects two key things. First, what a bodge-job hiring and retaining the England manager has been down the years. Imagine if Terry Venables had been given four tournaments, the ones Glenn Hoddle and Graham Taylor got either side of him. Imagine if the FA had hired prime Brian Clough, or Bob Paisley, or (oh yes) toxic supernova-era José Mourinho.

And second, it tells you what a fundamentally strange job being England manager is, how vital the culture and leadership stuff is. Southgate is very good at this. He manages the submerged iceberg of weirdness outside the match days so well we forget it’s even there. This, plus a good crop of players, has been enough to get further than anyone else outside 1966.

It is, of course, necessary to run down the arguments against. It will be said Southgate simply has the greatest players, that England’s talent is the envy of the world, that he has in fact been holding back these golden lions all this time. Brazil gazes at Conor Gallagher in awe. France crave their own Jordan Henderson. The Netherlands can only wish they had a Jesse Lingard.

This might make sense if you have no knowledge of other nations, or have swallowed whole the Premier League marketing plan. The reality is England have always had good players. Southgate created an environment in which they could flourish and did this while taking Ashley Young, Eric Dier and Harry Maguire along for the ride. This is what good management looks like.

So instead we will hear that Southgate has simply been lucky, all the time, for eight years. It is true that England are lucky to be still in this tournament. Watching them play has been openly painful, spectator sport reimagined as a kind of punishment beating.

But maybe, just maybe, Southgate is cashing in some luck from a good solid eight years of work. England kept trying when they might have fallen apart. Something made that happen. Luck runs out. But it doesn’t arrive in a vacuum.

As for lucky draws, it is barely worth pointing out that no one plays all the big teams back-to-back. There is always filler. You beat them to get to the hard stuff. It’s a good habit.

It is at this point that the Southgate Paradox really kicks in. You can disagree with and pick away at the above. But there is no logical sense in which Southgate’s record can be regarded as an abject failure, or a con job, or a source of constant frustration – at least not by anyone with semi-functional powers of reasoning.

And yet this really is what’s going on out there. Right now Southgate is arguably the most rage-inducing person in the country, the object of constant unchecked derision. A middle-aged man could say unfunny things on a Friday night BBC panel show, then just throw “Gareth Southgate” in at the end and the fake audience would howl with laughter. So profound is the hostility it may come to define Southgate’s time as England manager, which has also involved – just as a subplot – being the best manager of the past 50 years. Yay, England. You do you.

Where does it come from, this rage? The unchecked conviction that England under Southgate have been a continuing national humiliation? Most obviously, people get bored of the same faces and voices. There is a reflex to complain. Life is fragile and difficult. People need a place to rest their anger.

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Is the rage towards Gareth Southgate partly due to the public’s boredom with familiar faces and voices? Photograph: David Ramos/Fifa/Getty Images

Plus there is the fact this has become a race to the bottom in the media. Southgate-bashing is clicks. And the media are no longer Nigel Cakebread of the Daily Week giving it to you straight every Thursday. The news cycle hits from every angle, a battle among pundits to go viral, to produce the perfectly clippable, apparently spontaneous denunciation.

The international celebrity and former England ace-face Gary Sprockington has called you “a div” on the world’s No 3 rated podcast Soccer Opinion Laughing. The entire Blackburn Rovers midfield of the 1995-96 season is calling for Southgate to be pelted with stone fruit. Lionel2475Luvmykids has called Harry Kane “a nonz” 300 times in the past 24 hours.

This is the unusual environment Southgate is talking about. The media are people he used to play with. Hugely accessible A-listers can speak out of the air like gods direct to their followers, who will amplify these tailored opinions as “just telling it like it is” (while expertly monetising a podcast).

And there is something very distinct, very now, very England about how that floating anger expresses itself. The cry is always for an unshackling, an unleashing. The talk is always about betrayal, about a sword left sleeping in the stone. We are confined by elites, by uncaring powers, by men in suits. Unleash us. Allow us to reinstate the natural order, which is English success, English righteousness.

Southgate fits this dynamic because he is cautious and controlling. He fits it because of the way he looks, the gawky headmaster chic. Politics don’t help. He will always be Woke-gate to some, even if he’s really not very woke any more. Southgate talks in words. He doesn’t ROAR. He doesn’t surge or unleash. He reads the meter and takes the recycling out.

In many ways he is trapped, unable to do anything but stay the course. In part these constraints are his own limitations. The calls to unleash, to attack, to let loose the dogs of Gareth have coincided with a degree of confusion this tournament. Unbalanced selections have emerged. Here is a manager who has forgotten he isn’t good at the unleashing side, who has moved away from the steadiness that made his team work.

Southgate is also trapped by what English football has given him, not only a lack of left-backs and central midfielders but his own range of experience. In the end international sport is a test of a system and a culture. An A-list tactician might have reconfigured an inferior England midfield to resist Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in 2018.

Gareth Southgate has the players to reach a third semi-final in six years. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA Sports Photo Agency

But there are no A-list English managers. There has never been a successful English coaching school. The last English manager to win the English league was direct football’s Howard Wilkinson. This is why England have Southgate. This is why England have players who thrive in defined roles, why the pegs are square not round. Shouting at the only manager of the past 50 years to figure out a way to fudge this; well, that’s definitely one way of trying to fix it.

Where does this leave the current iteration before Düsseldorf on Saturday? Switzerland are a technically sound, well-organised team. England also have good players. They have the capacity to reach a third semi-final in six years if the mood and shape are right.

There has been talk of a shift to a back three, which makes sense if only to rebalance the heart of the team, to sneak another defensive-minded player into the controlling areas, to give the creative players a solid base to function.

Much will depend on how England start, on how the team feel about themselves after four difficult games. And as ever the noise will be a factor. Another paradox: the toxic energy around Southgate is further evidence of how well he has done his job. This is what you have to fight against, what you have to swallow.

Imagine trying to do the job with all that going on. Imagine doing it as well as anyone ever has, while also being told constantly that you’re a fraud and a stuffed shirt, that you are in fact the problem. A manager who came in talking about freeing the players from pressure has spent the past week talking about little else. Southgate is far from perfect. But he deserves his roses just for getting to the end of this.

The Guardian