When Gareth Southgate was appointed England manager in 2016, I vowed to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was young, English and seemed to have a clear vision about where he wanted to take the team.
Four years later, however, and all that is left is the doubt.
Simply put, I don’t think he is up to the task in hand. In fact, worse than that, I think he is making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.
His team selection is all over the place, his tactics painfully defensive, he picks players on a basis of loyalty rather than form, discipline is thin on the ground and his vision has become, at best, distorted.
Against Belgium last Sunday England squeezed out a win which, on paper, looks like progress. But the performance, especially in the first half, didn’t really live up to the result.
And in Wednesday’s game with Denmark – admittedly not helped by a referee who had apparently never watched a football match before and was blissfully unacquainted with the rules – they were no better.
It feels like whenever I see Southgate’s England team play, all I am left with a long list of questions. Here’s the latest:
Why play Harry Maguire when it is clear his confidence has all but evaporated over the past couple of months? (Although, for the record, it was never a second yellow card. It’s called a tackle, ref, and footballers sometimes need to do them.)
Why leave Jack Grealish sitting in the stands when it became strikingly obvious against Wales that England have finally discovered the unpredictable creative spark they have lacked since Paul Gascoigne retired?
Why play five defenders against Denmark while leaving out players like Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka who are capable of striking fear into opponents with their running, trickery and power?
Why persist with Marcus Rashford when he spends 75 per cent of this time on the pitch finding new and interesting ways of passing the ball to the opponents?
Since his appointment, Southgate has approached every England game with an abundance of caution, irrespective of the opponents or the context.
When he talks in a press conference or interview, he looks like a nervous and edgy chap, and that shines through in his selection and tactics.
Right now, England have a devastatingly good variety of midfielders and forwards to choose from, so why on earth overload the team with defensive minded individuals?
That sort of reserved approach may mean you lose less games, but you will never win anything of substance unless you play to the strengths of the squad.
Yes, England made the semi-finals of the last World Cup but that had everything to do with the opponents they met on the way. The second they came up against a team that played proper attacking football, they crumbled.
And the same thing will keep on happening unless Southgate realises England are currently blessed with players that are capable of taking teams to pieces through the sheer weight of the attacking capabilities.
Sadly, I can’t see him adopting any approach that isn’t based on trying not to lose matches rather than trying to win them. Being adventurous doesn’t appear to be in the man’s nature.
But the deep and overflowing pool of talent England currently have available won’t be around forever. Now is the time to make use of it, and make use of it properly. Show teams you aren’t afraid of them, and that it is they that should be afraid of you. Make England feared, not fearful.
England have a devastatingly good variety of midfielders and forwards to choose from, so why on earth overload the team with defensive minded individuals?
And if Southgate is intrinsically incapable of doing that, if a more gung-ho approach goes against his nature, then he should step aside and make way for a manager who recognises the raw materials that are available and finds a way of moulding them into the awesome team they can be.
Project Power Grab
I have been wracking my brains (not a big wrack, I admit) over the past few days to find a printable way to describe my thoughts on Project Big Picture.
It’s not been easy but I’ll try this: PBP was nothing more than a blatant, despicable and entirely transparent attempt by English football’s big six teams to blackmail the rest of the clubs into giving them total control of the sport.
It really is as simple as that.
As you know, the plan was thrown out last Wednesday and the Premier League as a whole will now embark on a proper, less devious and more open discussion on the way forward for English football.
Ironically, when push came to shove, all 20 Premier League clubs voted against the project, including the two who drew it up – Manchester United and Liverpool and the rest of the big six.
I suspect they didn’t realise the huge level of opposition there would be to such a transparent attempt at a coup – from clubs, associations, the government and, most importantly, the fans. Even their own.
Voting against their own plan – has there ever been a greater display of cowardice?
In my mind, the main problem with the scheme was the shake-up of voting rights. There were other issues too, but it was the voting plan which caused the most consternation – essentially giving the big six teams total control over English football.
That the whole thing was wrapped up in a €250 million bribe for Football League clubs shows just how callous and calculating the people who drew it up were, waiting for a moment when smaller clubs were desperate for money and then offering them a lifeline in return for power.
Give us full control over the game and we will ensure you don’t go out of business, the billionaire chairmen of the big six said, while sitting in their platinum embossed boardrooms on chairs made from the hides of endangered species.
Who’s up for a little selling of the soul to the devil?
Some have said that Project Big Picture is just a bunch of proposals that have been put out there as a starting point for discussion. But the document that was leaked was the 17th draft of this plan, so it’s hardly like they scribbled down a few ideas on the back of a cigarette packet.
This was a failed coup that had been long in the planning. Nothing less, nothing more.
The sad thing is that there were parts of this proposal that were worthy of discussion. Like potentially doing away with the League Cup and reducing the Premier League to 18 teams. Not saying I agree with either, but exploring them would have been interesting.
Ultimately this was all about greed, about the rich getting richer, the elite teams being protected from any potential disruption to their dominance and about the rest of football being perpetually subservient.
It stank, and I hope the people who drew it up feel ashamed and dirty now it’s all out in the open.
Well, they voted against their own plan, so it’s quite possible they did.
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