South by Southgate: Irrespective of the result tonight, England have found a rare gem of a manager
With a managerial CV boasting only of a stint with Middlesbrough, who got relegated from the Premier League during his tenure, no one saw the tremendous impact he would have on English national football in general over the next 5 years. Today, memes refer to him as the ideal middle age crush for interested (and enamoured!) ladies and municipal offices in his hometown are being inundated with requests to erect a statue in his honour.
The colossal World Cup victory engineered by Sir Alf Ramsay 55 years back remains the high point of British football today. And no other manager other than Southgate has progressed beyond the semi-finals of a major competition before or since, with only two others achieving a semi-final appearance: Bobby Robson at the 1990 World Cup and Terry Venables at Euro 1996.
So, what makes this 50-year-old tread such hallowed ground? To understand that, you need to realize that Gareth Southgate is a man of many parts, and when all of them come together like it has over the last few years, the resultant success is only but inevitable.
Gareth the Courageous. No one can doubt the courage of his convictions.
While managers in the past have often bowed to the pressure exerted by fans and media alike by filling up the squad with superstars at the expense of cohesion (often and invariably leading to disastrous ends), Southgate has managed to organise a team of experienced veterans and young talent and stuck to his guns around team formation and in-game tactics. With a strong defensive structure and a vastly improved midfield axis working brilliantly in tandem, Southgate has had no qualms about keeping a truckload of attacking talent on the bench – and with no fear of media or fan reprisals. Gareth the Quiet. Neither Southgate (who is not a voluble person in general) nor any member of his management team have leaked much team info or game tactics to any sports or mainstream media outside of planned press interactions. The tabloids and papers have had to dig deep and create their own version of what the English team would look like as Team Gareth has successfully managed to keep the players away from the pressure and noise of media intrusion which has allowed the players to express themselves freely where it’s needed — the football pitch.
Gareth the Communicator. Be it standing behind the team on antiracism issues or explaining to every squad member his role in the England setup, Southgate (yes, the quiet Southgate!) has shown enough nous to make him a master communicator. In him, the Football Association (FA) has found a strong leader with a conscience who is not just happy to let the football do all the talking. Gareth the Flexible. While his tactics have consistently been questioned, he has always shown a willingness to change in live match situations in order to win — his only objective. He has used a 4-3-3 formation to get an extra attacking player into the side in early matches and happily changed it against Germany when he needed to find a way to stop their marauding wing backs. He was also flexible and brave enough to substitute a substitute (feel a little bad for Jack Grealish though) leaving pundits and fans looking on in sheer disbelief. Whatever he is doing is evidently working as England have only let in one goal in the entire Euro 2020 campaign so far.
Gareth the compassionate. One would expect a winning manager with a team on the ascendancy to talk about his superior tactics, his carefully nurtured bevy of superstars and their performances, his plans and manoeuvers, but this man has a different side to him. He speaks about those players who haven’t got a minute of actual game time and how his job is to manage them and help them contribute to the team as a complete unit without worrying about their own frailties.
And this is where Gareth Southgate is a complete manager. He has found a way to manage every aspect of the game and every part of the player’s psyche. Irrespective of the end result, England may have found a rare gem of a manager — a guardian of the English spirit of football.
The writer is a sports media professional
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