It has been 47 days since England failed to win the Euro 2020 final. Long enough for Gareth Southgate to get some of the sleep he predicted he would need. Long enough to get over the feeling that, as he put it the next day, his stomach had been ripped out.
Now it’s up to the next challenge, qualifying for the winter 2022 World Cup. But much of what happened in the summer will follow Southgate to Hungary, where England will play a week in Budapest on Thursday. Most of it is good, but not everything.
It is always instructive to see how quickly perceptions and expectations change in football.
Gareth Southgate and England return to action next week for the first time since Italy
In the second week of July, when England defeated Denmark in the semi-finals of the European Championship, Southgate was talked about as the head coach for the next 10 years. England were in a major tournament final for the first time in more than half a century. The country was grateful.
However, the morning after Italy won the final on penalties, the conversation had changed a bit. That Monday, back in St George’s Park, Southgate faced the media for the better part of an hour. He looked defeated.
Commissions were offered, but he was also asked some rigorous questions.
He was asked whether his England team was ‘too nice’ to win major tournaments, whether he had picked the wrong players for the shootout and whether he had been too cautious – too negative – in his approach in the final. It’s this last question that has stuck and it’s not just a “media thing.”
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Within football, managers, players and pundits have talked privately about whether Southgate should have been braver when an early goal put his team ahead that night. Many feel he should have done that. There is a feeling that the game was there to be finished and that an opportunity was not taken.
Other people in the game questioned Southgate’s preference for two midfielders from the start. In Leeds, for example, Kalvin Phillips’ team-mates think the young midfielder would have benefited from a little more responsibility, a little more possession.
It may all seem rather unfair to Southgate, as his team were unbeaten in open play at the European Championship. He has taken England to a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final in his nearly five-year tenure. But this is football at that level.
Give people more and they want more. And that’s why next week feels more important than it otherwise would, as England already have a lead in the top of their World Cup qualifying group after three opening wins.
There were also questions about the selection of his penalty taker when England lost in the shootout
They are two points ahead of Hungary and five points ahead of Poland, who should be their strongest rivals.
Still, away games against those two with a virtual walk-over home to Andorra on Sunday mid-week, will prove challenging and perhaps tell us something about England’s direction of travel.
England earned their place in the Euro 2020 final. They grew in the tournament and played football clinically and effectively by beating Germany, Ukraine and Denmark in the knockout stages.
Likewise – apart from Ukraine’s victory in Rome – it was a home tournament. Things will feel very different in Budapest and Warsaw, and if England has a hangover from the summer, things may not go as they should.
We certainly can’t expect Southgate to change personnel much when he announces his squad on Thursday. Trent Alexander-Arnold can expect a recall after an injury ruled him out of the European Championship. Injuries to Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden will open the door for Mason Greenwood and perhaps Danny Ings, who has started the season well at Aston Villa.
With Qatar fast approaching, Southgate has been tasked with raising the bar once again
Southgate will be pleased that talks about captain Harry Kane’s future at Tottenham are closed for now, and will assemble a group of players who are comfortable with each other and committed to the way the manager works.
He will speak in public on Thursday for the first time since that miserable Monday morning in July and he may have a right to remind people that England has accomplished something important this summer, something that will serve them well when they come to Qatar next winter. to work.
Likewise, last month he said he would be leaving to reflect on his approach to the final and his use of substitutions. It will be interesting to learn, now that the dust has settled, how he thinks he performed that night.
If, as he likes to say, Southgate’s England is a work in progress, then maybe the manager is too. He and his team will likely have to raise the bar one more time if they are to achieve the ultimate goal in the Middle East.