Nothing is nearly as damning as apathy, despite rabid rage being the cultural tone that England managers have dreaded and experienced most frequently throughout history.
Although the Gareth Southgate era has always been well-defined, since the team’s defeat to France in Qatar, it has floated around unattached and with all the narrative intensity of an epilogue.
And there are a ton of good reasons to think the celebration is over.
A glorious failure with echoes of Southgate’s Euro 96, but also a loss remarkable for being unremarkable, the absence of jingoistic recriminations upon defeat a testament to the cultural shift Southgate has oversaw. Harry Kane’s missed penalty and the World Cup quarterfinal exit was the perfect ending.
Since it was so evident that the drama had ended, Dear England, a well-known play performed at the National Theatre, provided a reflection on Southgate’s tenure as manager.
Your time is over when artists are penning your obituary, for sure.
England is moving backwards
If that wasn’t evident enough, the general groan during his team introductions undoubtedly was.
The existence of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson in the camp now elicit little more than a shrug, which is England’s version of the Conservative Party’s stance to “let Rishi be Rishi” while they wait for oblivion, when there previously was hope of growth towards a progressive and dynamic England line-up.
Letting Gareth be Gareth has unavoidably resulted in a reaffirmation of the values we once hoped would only be temporary as well as, more surprisingly, a weakening of the statesmanlike persona, which seems to indicate Southgate is no longer engaged in battle, no longer vying for approval, and no longer traveling down a path that is specifically leading to anywhere.
To defend Henderson’s selection, Southgate told reporters last month, “I don’t really know what the morality argument is when so many of our sectors are hooked up with Saudi investment. We depend heavily on Saudi Arabia for our oil given the situation with Russia.
To put it mildly, it is an extremely biased perspective, and the way he brushed off inquiries about how the LGBTQ+ population is treated in Saudi Arabia was as contemptuous.
Working through all of it is really challenging, he said. So unless someone informs me otherwise, I can choose players even if they are competing in separate nations. I have to choose a football team.
I don’t think you can pick a football team based on any prejudice about where they might be playing their football. I am a bit lost with some of the questioning.”
Southgate is now different
It just doesn’t seem like the cautious and thoughtful Southgate who changed how English football sees itself, despite the shaky ethics and moral whataboutery present here.
In fact, he had a prickly demeanor and appeared to be at the end of his rope; he was no longer considering his position holistically or how he might assist form the connection between the England men’s team and the larger culture.
With Henderson and Maguire being two of the nine players who will be over 30 when Euro 2024 kicks off in June of next year, there is a nice symmetry to the footballing side of his team selection this month.
The call for Southgate to be a bit more open-minded and to allow a generation of really talented people to bloom artistically has always been a little exaggerated. Knock-out competitions are won via prudence, and Southgate is correct to refrain from utilizing risky strategies with a team he only sees sometimes.
But like France in 2018, England is undoubtedly now in a position to employ progressive players in more regressive roles, coaching tactically astute young footballers to pick their moments within a framework that preserves defensive solidity while still providing the opportunity to overwhelm opponents; to accelerate when the situation calls for it.
Unwillingness to change
The epicenter of the muck that clogs up Southgate’s teams, central midfield and central defense, continue to be the problem. Henderson and Maguire are once more the live sculptures, monuments, and totems of the Gareth era: players who were dumped by their prestigious clubs but held to by an England manager who was no longer looking forward.
He also has choices. Ezri Konsa ought to be included in the team, but with six center backs, Southgate has the option of leaving out Maguire without finding a replacement, giving Henderson’s replacement more competition.
A tragic end to a successful period
The finest England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, Southgate has led his team to victory after victory. History will definitely be kind to him and his incredible achievement of purging the culture and reuniting England with its men’s team during a period of polarizing national politics. He deserves to be regarded as a national treasure.
Even with the more concrete, stick-to-football accomplishments like making it to a World Cup semifinal and finishing one penalty shootout away from winning a significant competition, he still does not receive enough credit for those accomplishments.
But as we slog through a postscript that even Southgate very nearly rejected, it is painful to see that his final year in command feels more weighed down than ever in a loyalty that is partially motivated by a fear of opening up and by the inclination to withdraw.
It’s just Gareth being Gareth instinct: a project moving inward, brains shutting down, and a depressing moral decay that drives the last nail in the coffin of an already-over period.