As the Gareth Southgate love-in around the world intensifies, our reporter in the England camp Anton Toloui takes a look at just how he has steered a team from Iceland disaster to a World Cup semi-final.
Many managers would have been loyal to the players and system that had seen England top their World Cup qualifying group and despite Southgate telling reporters he was happy with the team, his revolution began the next month during the friendlies against Brazil and Germany.
Gone were the likes of Joe Hart, Chris Smalling, Daniel Sturridge, Ryan Bertrand and Michael Keane and in came younger players, along with a tactical switch.
Southgate had surmised the three-at-the-back, play it from the back philosophy would only be possible with a new crop of players, hence the reliance on Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, Jesse Lingard and others.
Many would be criticised for taking risks so close to a World Cup. Southgate instead backed himself and is reaping the rewards.
It’s argued England don’t have players with the technical ability of Brazil, Germany and Spain so why try to compete in the same way?
Southgate thinks that mantra is daft and went about selecting a system he thought could eventually get England competing at the top level.
Before the tournament, the manager admitted he picked a system first – fitting the players around it. He has defenders that will play the ball from the back, high energy wing-backs adept at crossing and a fluid front-four offering pace, movement and skill.
Clubs and The FA have been trying to develop players more adept than previous generations. Southgate is the first England manager to put this to the test.
Ask any of the players – they appreciate the system and the manager’s trust to allow them to go out and show their footballing skills.
Pride and passion
Every manager demands 100 per cent from their players and every fan wants their heroes to truly mean it when they kiss the badge. Southgate has made it his job to focus on what it takes to get that pride and passion.
The former Villa defender experienced the highs and lows of playing for his country during a period where players were criticised for not caring about the fabled Three Lions.
Let’s be honest, taking well-paid players away from their clubs and families for long stretches to play games where they feel fans will turn on them at the first sight of failure is far from an attractive proposition.
Little things like days with the Marines, the squad watching Bobby Moore documentaries and community work has helped show playing for your country is more than a chore, it’s an honour.
That work started when Southgate was U21 head coach and continues in the youth groups today in an attempt to prove going away on England duty is the highest accolade.
It’s all about family
An important thing that has happened off the pitch is the focus on literal and figurative family.
Figuratively, Southgate has created a squad that is genuinely together with none of the cliques that ruined former squads.
It helps that so many of the squad came through the England youth ranks together. Many of these players either came from or have spent a fair bit of time on loan at EFL clubs meaning there’s a rationality and mutual appreciation of each other and the battle it takes to get there.
The England camp is also more inclusive of others’ backgrounds. Southgate appreciates the personal struggle it has taken for many of the side to get to where they are today and knows the role players’ families take in making them grounded, respectful human beings.
Hence the manager’s acceptance to allow Phil Jones and Fabian Delph to leave the camp to attend the births of their children and players being given days off to spend time with their families.
Family comes first is something Southgate has said on more than one occasion. His actions prove that.
Fun, fun, fun
The final point is this. Are you more inclined to work for your boss if they make work more enjoyable? Southgate clearly thinks so.
Some things we’ve noticed while here in Russia that prove Southgate and his team want their players to love the whole World Cup camp experience:
- Unicorns in the swimming pool
- Dodgeball during training
- Late night sessions looking through clips on the players’ phones of fans in the UK losing it
- Kabaddi during training
- Southgate and his staff picking the songs on the bus on the way to training
- Music during training
- Watching Love Island being a nightly tradition
- Nerf balls during training
- Southgate refusing to accept he is a sex and fashion icon with the line ‘I’m no Beckham’
- A rubber chicken at training
The ‘happiness, motivation and productivity’ of the masses has been debated and intellectualised for years. Southgate’s system is simple; make work an enjoyable experience, it’s only football.