Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA
Always leave them wanting more. Great opportunity. No one has ever wanted much more from an English football manager. Such is the fundamental nature of the work, from the initial hug to the howls and bellows of the extended endgame; to be England manager is to act as a sort of public contempt service, a witch crush, a wicker man in waistcoat burning. You come here to lament and lather about the state of England. In the bad times and, apparently, in the good times too.
There are really only two ways out of this thing now. You walk out in a haze of deserved abuse; or walk out in a haze of undeserved abuse. With England’s World Cup exit stamped and processed, Gareth Southgate at least has a chance right now to take the second of these.
And it could still happen. A departure on his own terms, without the need to recuperate internally for Germany 2024 or to return to Wembley Stadium where he was mocked three months ago, might just look a little more appealing.
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Frankly, who could blame him? The past six years have been a truly impressive body of work. This is the best English team of the last half century. None of these facts are disputable on the basis of the actual evidence. Yet Southgate’s abuse, the dismissal of his work, of his patience and common sense in the role, is now bordering on the bizarre.
Fair enough by the general public, who can say what they want about this stuff. But it is something regrettable by those within the media who have simply taken the opportunity to play gallery or sharpen a personal axe, adding another cynical and divisive note to the public discourse.
Who could blame the England manager if he walks away from this? At times it seems the question isn’t whether Southgate deserves to continue as England manager, but whether English football, or at least its perpetually enraged suburbs, deserve to keep him.
Related: The FA must stand up to Southgate. This cycle has not ended. Why leave now?
Southgate looked rather calm on Saturday night inside the plastic-coated catacombs of Al Bayt Stadium, site of England’s energetic and engaging final stand at Qatar 2022. There was no irritation, no sign of tiredness or despair. He seemed, frankly, right with things.
As it should. Defeat at Al Khor was a rare thing, a largely blameless exit. This was a close match against slightly superior opponents; and for the neutral a hilarious display of the World Cup.
This will disappoint those who wish to find Albion’s outrage and treachery and all, who will reflexively ask for an inquest (an inquest requires a corpse: nothing died here).
France didn’t play well. As L’Équipe put it, they performed beneath themselves. But the team’s brains were enough to drag them along.
They have survived England’s best times, they have been able to respond and react because they have fundamentally excellent players in every position, a team that combines athleticism, technique and game intelligence to a rare level.
This is no accident. France is the dominant football power of the last quarter century. France have played in five of the last 12 World Cup and European finals, have the best player in the world and have the best youth system. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re just a chapter head, that there’s someone else in the room with more energy than the main character.
Positives for England: They had a well thought out plan for Kylian Mbappé. In the second half they entered a stronger and dominated midfield, a complete reversal of the pattern of recent tournaments and a note of progress that deserves praise. Their best player skied a penalty that deservedly forced extra time. Only the most committed negative interpretations – the Southgate truthers, the Anti-Gaxxers, those for whom everything but uncontested English success is a perversion of the natural order – could find obvious problems with the details here.
There were, of course, parts that could be refinished. Perhaps Southgate should also have obeyed his more cautious instincts in the long run and sought control of a three-man defence. Did you listen to the voices? Never, ever listen to the voices.
Was Jordan Henderson really ready to start so many games in a short period of time? Jürgen Klopp has him in close rotation at Liverpool.
Phil Foden could have left a little earlier when it was clear this was not his night. Bringing in Raheem Sterling was downright misguided loyalty. Sterling hadn’t practiced. Others had.
And yet… This is a small beer. It is not necessary to study the history of football (although for some, it seems, it could help) to put it into context. With the defeats of Germany, Iceland, Uruguay and Italy there was a sense of the system having lost its race, of inconsistency from above. This is not the same thing. England is now a functioning machine, an entity with substance, leadership, internal communication, a way of playing and of being. This was largely Southgate’s work. It feeds directly into England’s coherence, the sense of happy unity. Legacy isn’t always just pots and pans.
So why should he leave now? Also because there’s always a time to leave and six years is a long time. Also, despite all the negativity, it would be an unconditionally honorable discharge at this stage. Look back through the names, the old mugshots, and the fact is that only three people have actually succeeded at this job.
Alf Ramsey has won a World Cup. Terry Venables had a good euro then left – this still seems strange – to spend more time on court cases than he did. Southgate have competed in three tournaments and have taken England to a semi-final, a final and now a quarter-final. Bobby Robson had more lows and some nice highs too. Everyone else on that list is basically just paddling to stay afloat, keepers of public anger, pressured men, grimacing in tracksuits.
And now we have this, the man in the tracksuit and zip-up golf shirt, an England manager who will now as methodically consider the costs and benefits of staying on for Germany 2024 as always.
There is a need for surgery, especially in the back. England need an improved midfielder with a lap of pace. England need another central midfielder and a genuine backup from Harry Kane. England may also want to look at another goalkeeper at some point. Seven players on the pitch at Al Bayt were also mainstays five years ago in Russia.
Does Southgate have the appetite to make it work? Would another entry achieve more, with an opportunity instead to ensure that what it leaves behind is a solid foundation rather than a rebuilding project? More precisely, when does needless hostility begin to degrade his ability to do the job, or simply enjoy it? Here’s a thought. England have also improved since last summer. This team, with this midfield, would probably win that final of the European Championship.
But imagine how much more certain – 10%? 5%? – could they have been with more support, with an intellectually honest assessment of the progress being made, instead of that subchorus of incoherent anger? Being booed. Defend the manager. Justify yourself in public. All of these things take their toll.
Qatar 2022 is over for England. There will, of course, be some anger, some upset. But sometimes losing to the best team in the world is just that.