By James Smith
Two games into Gareth Southgate’s full-time position as England manager and already we have been shown glimpses of change in the England set-up, both on and off the field. Southgate has shown himself to be an advocate of picking players on merit based on their club form, as opposed to the seemingly repetitive and reputational line-ups favoured by Roy Hodgson. This has certainly been greeted favourably. Southgate has also been unafraid to adopt the 3-4-2-1 system, currently employed very successfully by a certain Antonio Conte – a brave decision even a decade after Steve McClaren unveiled it at Wembley against Croatia on that night, seemingly condemning the system to the skip.
However, if Southgate’s overhaul of the England system is to have any longevity then these changes must not be restricted to St George’s Park; there also needs to be some change in attitude from the media and the public towards the England squad, especially the younger contingent. The squad chosen for the Germany and Lithuania matches was indeed filled with an array of young talent, with no fewer than ten of the twenty-four being twenty-three or younger, including Dele Alli and Ross Barkley. These two players in particular have attracted great media hype in the past couple of years, both having been compared to Paul Gascoigne, arguably one of England’s best ever players, with Sir Alex Ferguson saying of Delle Alli, “He is probably the best young midfielder I have seen in many years,” and former Everton boss Roberto Martinez likening Ross Barkley to German legend Michael Ballack.
This is perhaps the start of the problem. To compare players this young, regardless of their potential, to past players of undeniable talent and commitment, whilst complimentary, heaps a great deal of pressure on the young men. This is not to say that footballers shouldn’t be able to deal with pressure, in fact playing in front of tens of thousands of people must in itself take a good deal of strength of character. The point remains, though, that for a young footballer attempting to establish himself permanently in the England starting eleven, it is a great responsibility to be marked as a possible future talisman of the team before you have properly become part of it.
The main part of the problem from such media hype, however, arises in the media backlash following disappointing results, and even when results have actually gone England’s way. The atmosphere of excitement before Euro 2016 was ended swiftly by England’s early exit and marked by fans in the stands chanting “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” at their team. The same sentiment was voiced in well-publicised diatribes from prominent media figures. Stan Collymore and Mark Saggers’ rants on Talksport continue to be repeated across social media. Indeed, even after England’s 2-0 victory over Lithuania at the end of March sports pundits were quick to highlight the lack of impact Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had on the result instead of focusing on the positives.
This is nothing new and nor is England’s recent lack of success. The solution is a simple one. Fans need to be more patient with the new manager and his young team. Easier said than done: yes, as England fans have been waiting fifty years for another major honour. Surely now though the time has come to properly recognise that England are not the favourites to win the next international tournament, not because they are lacking in quality but because of the strengths of some of the other international setups. In fact, after the pain of the golden era where the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Beckham, Ferdinand and Terry were tipped to send England to greatness and then slaughtered in the press when this did not come to fruition, the lesson that constant criticism is not the solution should have been heeded. Instead, if Southgate’s regeneration of England’s hopes of international success are to be played out, then there is a need for patience with him and his players, and not condemn them to failure before they have had a fair chance of displaying their qualities on the biggest stage all.
Photograph: Matthew Topp via Flickr.