Gareth Southgate's 5 finest moments as England manager | Euro 2021 watch
- Gareth Southgate has proven to be a great England manager - and these are his 5 finest moments since taking charge.
- Southgate led England to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018.
Were it not for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this week would’ve seen the return of international football, with the Euro 2020 playoffs running alongside a series of friendly games for the already qualified sides to prepare for the tournament.
England – who qualified back in November – were all set to face Italy and Denmark in warm-up games, but of course, those games have now been cancelled, with Euro 2020 itself being moved to next summer instead.
Despite this, England boss Gareth Southgate still appears to be in high spirits; the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough man wrote an open letter to Three Lions fans last week encouraging them to look out for one another and look forward to next summer’s tournament.
It was the exact kind of rhetoric you’d expect from a man who has become a surprising national treasure in recent years after leading England to their best results in well over a decade.
With that in mind, here are Southgate’s 5 best moments – thus far – as England manager.
#5 Maguire’s header sends England on their way against Sweden
After England had seen high drama en route to the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup – more on that later – fans of the Three Lions were expecting more when they faced off with Sweden in the last eight. The Swedes had become a regular opponent for England in the years leading up to the tournament; the two sides had faced off in major tournaments in 1992, 2002, 2006 and 2012, as well as in qualifying for Euro 2000, and the last competitive match between the two had seen England edge out a 3-2 thriller in perhaps the best game of Euro 2012.
The atmosphere for this game, though, felt different from the off – calmer, somehow – and when England won a corner after half an hour and positioned themselves in the formation known fondly as the “love train”, it seemed inevitable that something special was about to happen.
Sure enough, Ashley Young sent the ball into the box – directly onto the large head of Harry Maguire, who powered a header into the net for his first international goal. Suddenly, England were on their way.
Despite Sweden having a handful of good chances early in the second half, the result somehow never felt in doubt – and when Dele Alli doubled the Three Lions’ lead in the second half, it became clear that England were heading into their first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
The pedestrian nature of the result – completely different to England’s usual back-and-forth games with Sweden – just showed that Southgate’s side were maturing throughout the tournament. Nobody expected it to be that simple, and yet it was.
#4 Kane’s late winner against Croatia
When England were drawn in a group with Spain and Croatia for the inaugural edition of the UEFA Nations League in early 2018, nobody really thought too much into it. The worth of the new competition wasn’t really known, the World Cup was still to come, and the Three Lions didn’t really have a major rivalry with either side, having not played Spain competitively since 1996, Croatia since 2004.
That all changed after the World Cup, which famously saw Croatia eliminate England in the semi-finals after a classic match. That match saw Southgate’s side take an early lead and dominate the first half, only to allow Croatia to come back at them, with midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic dominating proceedings from the centre of the pitch, never really allowing England the time on the ball that they needed.
Suddenly, the Nations League not only became a chance for England to get their hands on some silverware, but it was also a chance for Southgate to test his new system – 4-3-3 rather than the 3-5-2 preferred in the World Cup – against the foes that’d cruelly exposed his side’s limitations in Russia.
The new system had already worked wonders against Spain – more on that later – but against Croatia, in a must-win game with the winners heading to the tournament’s semi-finals in June 2019 and the losers being “relegated”, nobody was too sure what would happen.
Thankfully for fans of the Three Lions, things went perfectly, in the end at least. It was a match dominated by England. Croatia were admittedly short of Rakitic, but Modric was still there, only his influence was kept to a minimum this time thanks to the holding abilities of Eric Dier and the passing work of surprise starter Fabian Delph.
It took 20 minutes for England to find an equaliser, a long throw finding its way past everyone – including the Croatian goalkeeper – before Jesse Lingard poked the ball home.
With 12 minutes to go, both teams went hard in search of a winner, but it was Southgate’s side who would find it. Harry Kane, no stranger to bailing England out at the last second, as he’d done against Scotland in 2017 and Tunisia at the World Cup, popped up to slide the ball into the net from a Ben Chilwell free-kick with just five minutes to go.
Sure, it wasn’t the World Cup semi-final, but it was still a huge result for England, who gained a modicum of revenge over Croatia – and it was a seismic result for Southgate, proving that the tweak he’d made to his system had worked wonders.
#3 Kieran Trippier’s free-kick against Croatia
Taken as a moment alone, this might well have been #1 in this list; for some fans at home in England, 2018 peaked at the moment that Kieran Trippier’s free-kick hit the net in the Three Lions’ game against Croatia, giving them the lead in the semi-finals of the World Cup after just five minutes. From there, it was all downhill – it had to be.
But for as much as the game marked the end for the 3-5-2 system that had served England so well throughout the tournament – its limitations exposed as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic swarmed Jordan Henderson, England’s only true central midfielder, giving him no time on the ball – the way it began was also further proof of Southgate’s underrated tactical nous.
A year prior to the tournament – before the introduction of the 3-5-2 system – the England boss was faced with a dilemma: should he keep Kyle Walker, who had moved to Manchester City from Tottenham, as his first-choice right-back, or go with Kieran Trippier, the man who’d usurped him at Spurs?
It was a tricky decision for any manager; Trippier was perhaps the better defender with the better ball delivery, but Walker had better attacking instincts and far more pace on the flank.
In the end, Southgate went with both, using Trippier as his right wing-back and installing Walker as a makeshift centre-back, looking to use his pace to cover for his other two centre-backs John Stones and Harry Maguire, both of whom had a tendency to dribble the ball out from the back.
It was a decision that paid off hugely during the tournament; Walker’s pace indeed bailed England out on numerous occasions, but it was Trippier who really proved a revelation.
He became the Three Lions’ set-piece man, starting a number of their goals including strikes against Tunisia, Panama and Sweden.
Over the course of the tournament the Spurs man had a number of free-kicks at goal, and came close with a couple of them – but when he stepped up to put England ahead in the semi-final with a beautifully taken strike, his first international goal, it was not just a great moment for him, it was also an affirmation for Southgate’s system.
For years England had struggled in an attempt to fit square pegs into round holes – Southgate had instead created square holes to fit them into.
#2 The win against Spain in the Nations League
England returned from the 2018 World Cup on a high after reaching their first semi-final since 1990, but for Southgate, the fact that his side had fallen at the final hurdle – beaten not by a dodgy refereeing decision, but by a clearly superior side – meant that there was work to do.
When the Three Lions were beaten at Wembley by Spain in similar fashion in the opening game of the UEFA Nations League – with England again unable to control the centre of the pitch – it was clear that something had to change.
That something was the 3-5-2 system introduced just prior to the World Cup. In its place, Southgate installed a 4-3-3 formation, looking to provide the Three Lions with extra steel in midfield while also making use of his squad’s speed on the flanks. This was achieved by deploying dangerous, pacy attackers like Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford who complimented central striker Harry Kane.
The system was trialled in an odd behind-closed-doors game with Croatia in the Nations League, but it wasn’t until the return game in Spain that England fans would see its true effects.
No England side had won in Spain for 31 years, but somehow, Southgate’s side found themselves 0-3 up when the whistle blew for half-time.
The preceding 45 minutes saw England play arguably their best football since their 1-5 demolition of Germany nearly 20 years prior. Spurs duo Eric Dier and Harry Winks harassed the Spanish midfield, refusing to allow them to dominate the game with their passing, while Ross Barkley shone in the creative midfield role, setting up the third goal with a beautifully chipped pass to Kane, who slid the ball across to Sterling for an easy finish.
The game truly belonged to the Manchester City man, though. Once maligned by England fans, Sterling’s switch from villain to hero was completed in Seville, as he opened the scoring with a wonderful goal following a breakaway attack. Kane was equally impressive, setting up England’s second goal for Rashford with some incredible hold-up play.
Sure, the Three Lions spent the second half with their backs to the wall, defending against wave after wave of Spanish attacks – but Southgate’s side never folded, never backed down for a second. If England’s World Cup run could be questioned due to the strength, or lack thereof, of their opposition, nobody could question this win. England – and Southgate – were firmly for real.
#1 Eric Dier’s penalty lifts the shootout curse
Coming into the 2018 World Cup, England fans had feared one thing more than anything else: the penalty shootout.
Since their first loss in the dreaded “lottery” against Germany in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, the Three Lions had gone 1-5 in shootouts, being eliminated from five different major tournaments with a total of 10 different players missing their spot-kicks. This list comprised of legends like David Beckham and Steven Gerrard to lesser-ranked stars such as Darius Vassell.
It felt like the “curse” would never be lifted, but Southgate had other ideas. Ironically, more than any other Englishman, the penalty curse hung heavy on his shoulders. After all, it was his missed spot-kick against Germany that sent England crashing out of Euro 96, erasing the good memories of the Three Lions’ shootout victory over Spain in their previous game.
Prior to the 2018 World Cup, members of the press had asked Southgate about the potential for a shootout, but he’d remained markedly calm, simply stating that his players had done the necessary work to prepare for such an event before the tournament. And in the Round of 16, that event came to pass.
England had looked set to head into the quarter-finals with a 1-0 win over Colombia in a bad-tempered, niggly game, only to concede an injury-time equaliser through Yerry Mina. When neither side could find a breakthrough in extra time, it felt like fate for England to be denied by penalties once again.
The first five kickers – Radamel Falcao, Harry Kane, Juan Cuadrado, Marcus Rashford and Luis Muriel – were faultless. But when Jordan Henderson’s kick – mid-level, to the right side of the goal – was saved by David Ospina, it looked like the same old story for England.
Southgate though was undeterred. He’d trained his players to “own the moment”, to take their time with each kick, something he’d never been taught 22 years beforehand. And goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was given his homework too – attached to his water bottle was a description of the kicking styles of each Colombian player.
England were handed a lifeline with the next kick; Mateus Uribe’s shot hammered against the bar and rebounded out. Kieran Trippier nervelessly smashed his penalty into the top corner to bring the Three Lions level, and then it was the turn of Carlos Bacca.
The whistle blew and just like Southgate all those years before, the Colombian forward left himself no time to think and shot – and Pickford reached the ball with his left hand, parrying it away from goal.
Suddenly, the Three Lions were one kick away from the quarter-finals – and one kick away from lifting their penalty curse once and for all. Up stepped Eric Dier, and despite Ospina getting a hand to the ball, his kick was slammed into the bottom corner, and somehow, someway, England were into the quarter-finals after winning a penalty shootout.
For England fans, it felt almost unreal; like a dream you’d eventually have to wake up from, except this wasn’t a dream. It was real life, despite the idea of the man who placed the curse in the first place being the one to lift it coming straight from the script of a Hollywood movie.
Southgate may well go on to lead England to a victory in a major tournament, be it the European Championship, the World Cup or perhaps something like the Nations League – but even if he does, he’ll find it hard to top Eric Dier’s penalty as his greatest moment as England manager.
It was the moment that things changed for the Three Lions, for good; never again will an England fan fear the lottery of penalties.Published 25 Mar 2020, 00:30 IST