Southgate needs to stop dreaming and wield the axe

Gareth Southgate in a press conference
Gareth Southgate in a press conference (PC: X)

English football has undoubtedly seen darker days – from the hooligan menace in the 1980s to Iceland beating them 2-1 at Euro 2016. The only consolation was that defeat, with Roy Hodgson as coach, did inspire the most iconic bit of 21st century sports commentary. “We’re never going home!” yelled Guðmundur Benediktsson. “Just look at this! Such things have never been seen! I can’t believe my own eyes! This is … Never wake me up! Never wake me up from this insane dream!”

After eight largely successful years under Gareth Southgate, it’s now England that are finding dreams turning into nightmares. The reaction at the end of the 0-0 draw against Slovenia would have made you think that England had just reprised that ignominious exit against Iceland. Dozens of fans greeted Southgate with plastic cups as he went to acknowledge their support. Though England have qualified for the last 16 and a Sunday evening date with Slovakia, the mood among fans is almost mutinous.

In his press conference after that game, Southgate spoke of the strange environment within the camp, stemming from the avalanche of criticism. “We have made England over the last three or four years fun again,” he said. “I think it has been enjoyable for the players and we have got to be very, very careful that it stays that way.”

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Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate (PC: X)

There has been no sign of that enjoyment at Euro 2024. After the expected World Cup exit against France in December 2022, England were unbeaten in 2023, a sequence of eight wins and two draws that included victories over Italy, home and away. In those matches, England scored 26 goals and conceded only five. While the cynics might say that seven goals came in one home game against North Macedonia, the same side held both England and Italy to draws on their turf.

In 2024, England have scored just seven times in seven games. Take out the three goals against a dreadful Bosnia in a friendly earlier this month, and the picture is truly bleak. Worse still, England aren’t creating quality chances. In their three group games, in one of the weakest first-round groups, they managed just 11 shots on target. Spain managed nine in their game against Italy, the defending champions.

The front four of Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden was meant to have opponents quaking in their boots. Instead, Kane, who had a record-breaking season with Bayern Munich in Germany, looks like a pensioner trying to run through treacle. Bellingham, just 20 and scorer of an incredible 23 goals in his debut season with Real Madrid, looks as out of puff as Muhammad Ali did after the Thrilla in Manila. Saka, who enjoyed his best goal-scoring season with Arsenal (20 goals), hasn’t found the net in his last eight England outings, and Foden looks unrecognisable from the player who was an unanimous choice for the English Premier League’s Player of the Season.

Mainoo and Palmer on the bench in the Euro 2024
Mainoo and Palmer on the bench in the Euro 2024 (PC: X)

The same Foden who has scored 42 times in his last 100 outings for Manchester City has four goals from 37 England caps. He has one from his last 15. And even as these generational talents flounder without any coherent style of play, Southgate talks of how Kalvin Phillips is missed. The same Phillips who rotted on the City bench for a season-and-a-half before enduring a nightmarish loan spell at West Ham. If Phillips is the answer, most fans don’t even want to hear the question.

Cole Palmer, who was in sublime goal-scoring form for a dismal Chelsea side, is one possible solution, as is the livewire Ollie Watkins in place of Kane. Kobbie Mainoo is surely a better bet in a midfield two alongside Declan Rice, while Trent Alexander-Arnold – whose dead-ball striking is the best England have had since the David Beckham days – could be a devastating second-half substitute.

But for any of this to happen, Southgate has to stop sleepwalking and start making changes. The draw has been incredibly kind to England, with the scary sides in the other half. But play like they did in the group phase, and even Stanislav Lobotka and Slovakia will tear them apart in the round of 16.

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