Gareth Southgate may be new to senior international management but as he prepares for the second half of a four-game audition for a role he is enjoying more than he expected, he admits he had concerns England would pay for their lack of big-match experience at Euro 2016.
Having inherited Sam Allardyce’s selection when stepping into the breach in September, the interim head coach will name his England squad on Sunday evening for the games against Scotland and Spain. Then he aims to broaden the leadership net to help the developing talent take greater responsibility and avoid the kind of freeze that cost Roy Hodgson’s players so ignominiously against Iceland in France.
“One of the concerns I had about the team going into the summer was there was not a lot of big-match experience,” Southgate told the Football Journalism students at the University of Derby this week. “People could argue Iceland isn’t a big match but any match for England in a major championship is big pressure.
“If you looked at the team 10 years ago, they would have had Terry, Ferdinand, Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Ashley Cole. They’d all have been in regular semi-finals of the Champions League, they all had big tournament experience.
“If you look at Spain and Germany, their guys have huge international experience but also most of their players at Madrid and Barcelona are challenging for La Liga every year [and] for the Champions League in high-pressure matches. So you’re building up a block of experience and belief.
“Most of our team last summer were guys who hadn’t been in that situation. Some of that can only come through experience, some of the understanding of how to deal with it comes from experience. Although painful for everybody, and I’ve had my own painful experiences in an England shirt, you are stronger for it and it’s then how you address it and move forward.”
Southgate could be forgiven for worrying about his own future, having been asked to look after England’s final four games of the year after Allardyce’s dramatic departure, but his graduation from nurturing the nation’s grassroots up to the under-21s over the past five years means he is more focused on developing the country’s needs.
A resounding victory over Scotland in next Friday’s World Cup qualifier at Wembley and a good performance in the friendly with Spain four days later would surely mean the full-time job is Southgate’s to turn down but he is more interested in the players’ development than his own.
He wants to alleviate the burden of leadership from Wayne Rooney’s shoulders, and nurture a captains’ cabal. The 46-year-old, who won 57 caps for his country during his playing career, was in relaxed mood as he explained how his experiences in charge of the under-21s, who won the Toulon Tournament in the summer, can aid the seniors. The progress of players such as Jack Butland and Harry Kane has been accelerated by this approach.
“With the under-21s we’ve tried to develop as many leaders as possible, and that involves giving people as much responsibility as we can,” Southgate said. “I think Wayne has had to lead a bit too much, a lot of the leadership has been resting on his shoulders.
“So small things like different people doing a press conference the night before the game, like we did with Theo Walcott last time, mean other people come into experiences where they are out of their comfort zone. When we work in workshops or other sessions, we have different people leading the group, ensure different people are speaking up.”
When speaking to the Derby students, Southgate continued: “Players are similar to you guys; it isn’t always easy to speak in front of your peers. Putting them in uncomfortable situations, on or off the training pitch, are all things that can help them step forward and take responsibility.
“So with the under-21s, we have a leadership group of five or six who take turns to do things like that and in the end they start to set the standards for the rest of the group. If somebody’s late for training, or their recovery sessions, it was Nathan Redmond or James Ward-Prowse who was pulling them back into line, rather than me as the coach.
“I think that’s more powerful if the team are doing that – and it saves me a lot of hassle! We want players to go out and take responsibility on the field so if we’re not giving them responsibility off the field on a daily basis then it’s very difficult for them to go and do it when they step up for a game.”
Southgate also believes maximising a relationship based on integrity between coach and player can improve performance. By offering truthful feedback rather than platitudes – or falsehoods – the coach would not only show concern for the individual player but aid his developing contribution to the team.
“I always thought it was helpful with the under-21s to have an honest conversation with a player. ‘You’re in the starting team and we think you need to work with this, this and this’ or, ‘you’re in the squad but to get into the team, these are the areas you need to improve upon’ or, ‘you’re in the squad and to stay in the squad you have to up your game’.
“I think that feedback is really important to players, I think they value one-to-one discussions. I think it has got to be honest. There is no use saying: ‘You’re really unlucky not to be in’ as it doesn’t mean anything, you are not giving a player something he can go away and work at.
“So I think it is important to be precise. Also players are pretty savvy; if you tell them something which they believe not to be true or in a couple of weeks’ time it isn’t true, then they’ll lose faith and belief in you. Sometimes those conversations are really difficult as you have to leave a player out but I think you owe it to them to be honest.”
Southgate is a great believer in the long-term development of players and teams but is also intent on enjoying the here and now. Managing your country may look pretty stressful but it is also a major opportunity.
“I set out that, although it has been a great responsibility, we were going to enjoy it because I don’t see the point of going into something and feeling it is a burden. I think the players would pick up on that most importantly. There will be games going on all over the country, with respect to the lower divisions, when I will be going out to [face] Scotland and Spain at Wembley so in the real world that is pretty exciting isn’t it?”
Neither is it the most stressful, notwithstanding the beam of publicity that comes with leading the nation’s football team. Being pitched into management at Middlesbrough at the age of 35, ironically when Steve McClaren left for the England job, was “by far the most stressful experience of my life … The intensity of [managing England] is different but actually I think the pressure is what you decide it is.”
Dealing with a relegation at Middlesbrough, after two years in mid-table, and with England’s failure to progress to the semi-finals of last year’s European Under-21 Championship has not dented Southgate’s vision of the way the game can be played but, despite the under-21s continuing with a passing game that showcases the FA’s DNA paradigm, he offers a pragmatic perspective for how England can approach Russia 2018.
Southgate has evidence that England’s age-group teams from under-16s to under-21s, over whom he has been in charge, are as technically proficient as any. But now England have made catching up on dominating possession a priority, the next challenge follows: to be more durable mentally and to adapt tactics according to a given situation.
This takes us back to where we came in which involves England players being capable of taking responsibility, being able to execute technique under pressure collectively. This will take time. Not many denigrate the technical abilities of Dele Alli, Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, Kane, John Stones et al. But England may need tough it out while this talented crew acquire the requisite mental resilience, Southgate suggests.
“You could go to a European Championship like Portugal just did and scramble your way through,” he said. “They found a different way to win and maybe that’s what we will need to do to have immediate success short term because I don’t think we’ll be the No1-ranked team in the world in a few years, because of the age of our players. So we’re going to have to be quite savvy in the ways that we get results.”
The Guardian Sport