“The case against Clevinger was open and closed. The only thing missing was something to accuse him of.
And so, buffeted by the familiar tides of rage, myopia and good old-fashioned English exceptionalism, it becomes necessary to defend Gareth Southgate. In a way, this is all quite heartwarming. Every English manager has two things in common: they all fail in the end, if only because there is no reasonable measure of success; and they all tell us, in their own way, exactly why English managers fail.
There are apologies that could be made for England’s lackluster performance against a highly motivated Hungarian side on Tuesday. But none of them really wash off. You could say the team was tired and exhausted. Which is true, but everyone else is too.
You could argue that if England fans had cheered the players on rather than booed them intermittently for the last three quarters of the game, the team might have been more inspired. We might suggest that if the nation had celebrated Southgate over the last year for his unprecedented success, instead of constantly finding fault, he might be a better, more confident England manager now.
We might suggest that the English fans and part of the media have become like a toxic partner, hovering maliciously, leaping happily at every mistake, to racially abusing players for losing a tournament final and then wondering why they could have fallen a year later. .
But again, none of this really washes out. It is the role of the manager to find solutions to these problems. That’s the job: problem solving, clarity, motivation. And Southgate knew what was coming because Hungary had already bruised their opponents in Budapest. Harry Kane was stifled again, with Attila Szalai spending much of the match grabbing Kane’s shirt collar as if the striker owed him money.
On the other end, John Stones was traumatized by Adam Szalai, who enjoyed himself immensely. There is a statue outside Molineux of the great Billy Wright, who was described by Geoffrey Green of The Times as “like a fire engine going to the wrong fire” after being tangled up by Hungary at Wembley in 1953. But at least Wright was still going to a real fire. Stones spent his time on the court attending a series of unrelated events – crank calls, weddings, book launches – as the flames in his rear view mirror raged.
Again, that’s no excuse. Bad defeats happen. Teams age. Coaches lose track of details. It takes a special kind of expertise to build a second iteration of a successful team; doing so without a lull or let-up is the territory of the elite. Southgate is not perfect. There is a natural lifespan to these things. Who knows, he might even be done after the World Cup.
But that’s not the interesting part, is it? What is most surprising about England’s decline in form is the violence of the reaction, the cries of genuine rage that accompanied not only this defeat but the victories that preceded it.
Looking back now to the days of the golden waistcoat, the summer of love from Moscow to Kaliningrad, when Gareth became, briefly, the perfect man, it is striking to think that the keynote of his time with the England may well end up being the current note: betrayal, enmity, howls of displeasure.
Somehow the only manager to really get that job since Terry Venables became another footnote in this never-ending story; another managerial reign that tells us a lot more about England and the deep cultural illusions of English football than it does about tactics, formations, shots on goal and all the rest.
It is necessary here to state once again some very simple facts. Southgate has the best win rate of any English manager to oversee 50 games. Southgate led England to two semi-finals in five years, following two semi-finals in the previous half-century. Southgate have lost two out of 26 games over the past two years. Southgate also developed England players through age group levels, helped impose a style, made the team likeable, showed faith in youth, brought golden moments and a flurry of goals , and has always acted as a leader he can be proud of. Does it still sound like it’s really football?
But then, it’s England, where you have to manage not only the team but also the vast freight of English insularity, English expectation. The founding identity of the England football team is based on a basic misconception that the default option is for England to win. And that if that doesn’t happen, there’s a problem to be solved, because something is fundamentally wrong with the universe.
There’s a kind of Arthurian element to it all, a deep, unspoken assumption that the condition of being merely English is at bottom irresistible. Properly managed, freed from its stone, an unfettered Englishness must always prevail. We have seen it in visceral and exciting players such as Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard, whose qualities were often seen as something to be “unleashed” and not tempered or balanced. Scream chaos and let the hounds of Albion go. They will fall before us.
So the success of other nations is always an aberration from the norm. English failure is therefore always vicious and melodramatic. And so English success can never be enjoyed. A semi-final is a failure. A final is a missed chance. Yes, England are one of the two best teams in Europe. But why not the best? Who can be blamed for this?
Foolishly, it looked like Southgate could have killed off that dark energy in 2018, when his humility seemed so refreshing after Iceland’s trauma at Nice. But it is clear now that these qualities, the solipsism, the refusal to look outward, the culture of we-have-nothing-to-learn-from-Brazilians have been sublimated in the level of expectation around this prudent and pragmatic team.
It is there in the howls of dismay at the failure to destroy everything before us by playing untied attacking football like no one else in recent international football history. It’s there in the misconceptions disguised as analysis. Ahead of the game against Germany last week, a former footballer could be heard saying with complete certainty that England were better ‘man for man’ than Germany, who had nine Champions League winners in their squad .
It’s probably there too, in Southgate’s own culture of alpha nice‑ism, to be the most thoughtful and wonderful English generation, and in the initial wave of triumphalism to find an English team not boring on its own nationality. We are the most humble! We will encourage you to submit!
Southgate took advantage of this recovery when he took over. There have been mistakes since, including a failure to put together a second team, improve the attack which is still essentially Harry Kane and slightly older Raheem Sterling, mask the softness of the central midfield, the weakness of the centre-half, without sinking into an all-out defense. Will we ever have a clear overview of all this? Success brought something else, a reawakening of the kraken of English insularity; now transformed into squalls of rage that threaten to consume a transition team.
The frustration is that there are real flaws and missteps here, details that get lost in the larger hysteria. For example, the widely accepted idea that England has a crop of talent that is the envy of the rest of Europe is clearly a wild exaggeration, blurring the lines of what is possible. There was talk on Tuesday night of the failure to build a team around Phil Foden, Foden’s ability to ‘dominate European football’, a ridiculous burden to place on England’s best young player, a 22-year-old years old who always finds his game.
As for the idea that Trent Alexander-Arnold is the obvious cure for narrowly failing to win close games in the final stages, that tends to dissolve into two words: Vinícius and Júnior. Alexander-Arnold is a brilliant creative full-back. But England can’t play like Liverpool and Kyle Walker is just a best bet at this team for now.
But why don’t England just attack? Why don’t they pour out? Why don’t they crush their opponents? The obvious answer is that nobody plays like that in international football, where caution tends to prevail. Didier Deschamps won a World Cup five years ago refusing to let up the handbrake – and with a much better squad.
A more genuine note of criticism is that Southgate failed to progress and evolve the team. Opponents have learned to defend against England, to sit deep, to attack their defensive weaknesses at the break. England have also been woody and mannered in one-off high-stakes games, where all too often their midfield has been overwhelmed. But hey, these games are often won by the best midfielders, and England are light here. It’s tempting to wonder who Southgate is supposed to choose? Bernhard Silva? Fabinho? N’Golo Kante?
Tick off the Premier League’s top six and Jordan Henderson is England’s only central midfielder. It’s a cultural problem that Southgate has attempted to address by stacking the bottom line. Arguably, his big mistake over the past 12 days was walking away from that successful defensive system, giving in to noises.
There are limits to the stature of any head coach. It will now be about succession planning, having an honest conversation with his employers about whether he feels he can build another team from here. In the meantime, it seems obvious that Southgate and its players deserve better than to be stuffed with bile; and that to indulge in the idea that he deserves to be sacked is to give in to the tides of rage, populism and digital collective thinking.
Even the rage unleashed inside the stadium after a genuinely disappointing night at Wolverhampton seemed to tell us more about the state of England at the moment, an unhappy and graceless place, the Violet Beauregarde of post-imperial lands, stuffed with purple with entitlement, moaning for his golden ticket, than he does over Southgate’s own largely successful attempts to bring this seedy old circus to heel.