Gareth Southgate loves coming into work at St George’s Park. And it’s easy to see why. Tucked away in the quiet Staffordshire countryside, the FA’s gleaming headquarters and neatly manicured training pitches are a coach’s paradise. But every time he arrives and salutes the St George’s Park receptionist, Southgate is greeted by images that provide a vivid reminder of his to-do list – and the item underlined at the top. England’s U-17s are splashed across the wall, the U-19s and U-20s too, and the senior women now take pride of place after this year’s spectacular UEFA Women’s EURO triumph. All of them, naturally, have trophies held aloft. Other coaches might feel taunted and tormented by such celebratory shots. Southgate describes them as “inspiring”. He can also see that, like the women’s team before them, his side have been edging steadily closer to that elusive and long-awaited moment of glory.
It’s easy to forget that the England team he took over had just been dumped out of the EURO by Iceland after finishing bottom of their section at Brazil 2014. Since then, the Three Lions have shed their tag as perennial underperformers at major tournaments by reaching their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years and the first EURO final of their history. The question now, of course, is how they take that next, all-important step from being on the podium to reaching its top.
Southgate sat down with FIFA+ to look ahead to Qatar 2022. Excerpts
On the effective use of substitutes as ‘finishers’ in matches and the importance of the non-playing members in creating the right squad atmosphere.
We’ve found in our two tournaments that several players who didn’t kick a ball were really important to the feel of the group, and I think history tells you that. Personally, I’ve played in tournaments where I’ve played every minute and I’ve been to a tournament where I didn’t kick a ball. You know those roles are different and you know what you’ve got to contribute to the team. With five substitutes now, I think the squad is even more important. That’s both in depth and just in people understanding their roles, because at set plays you can have half the team changing as the match goes on.
On the Qatar World Cup bring unusual and unique. And the challenges and opportunities as a coach.
I think we should always look at what’s positive about it, and for us there was a lot of travelling in Russia. Sometimes we were getting back to our base at four or five in the morning and that really impacts what you do over the next two days. So there will be far less travel in Qatar, and I think everyone will feel that that’s a benefit for training and preparation. There will be challenges but we’re looking forward to those challenges that tournaments bring. And we’re excited. The opportunity to go for a World Cup again… these are rare events in your life, and we have a team that has enjoyed a long period of good form. Yes, we had a bit of a blip in the summer (England failed to win any of their four UEFA Nations League matches and lost twice to Hungary) but we’ve learned a lot from that and we’re looking forward to these next
On the struggle in June Nations League and learning the lessons.
Whenever you lose football matches, there are things you have to learn. But the reality is that we needed to use those matches to look at players. We have eight days together this month (England play Italy on Friday and Germany on Monday), then we arrive in St George’s in November, fly to Doha and have five days ahead of our first game. So we needed to know about new caps over the summer. It meant that we fielded close to our strongest team in Germany, and then looked to balance having a number of matches in a short period at the end of a long season along with our desire to look at new players. Looking back, I don’t think I got that balance quite right in terms of being strong enough to win all those games and get the level of performance we needed.
When you make a lot of changes, if the team starts well they’re confident and can keep playing. But in that last game against Hungary, we didn’t start well and some of the lack of experience and lack of cohesion came through. You have to be careful as coach not to dismiss those learnings because you can’t lose 4-0 at home and think everything’s fine. But equally, it was only three or four games previously that we were 22 games without defeat and finalists in the European Championship. There’s a lot that we’ve built over a long period of time that should make this group of players very confident. They’ve had the best run of any England team for 50 years, so they’ve got to remember what they’ve done well.
On how much of the preferred line-up is settled at this stage.
Well, you’ve always got to be open-minded. But equally, if we weren’t very clear in our heads about the basis of those things, I think people would be wondering what we’re doing only two games out from the tournament (laughs). In our heads we’re pretty clear. Of course, there will be injuries for every country because it’s going to be an intense period ahead of this World Cup, so you’ve got to be ready to make changes. But we’ve had a fairly settled group for quite a long period of time and we know the players who can play at this level. We also know the importance of some of that tournament experience around the group. Equally, there are some very good young players coming through who’re challenging strongly for places both in the team and in the squad.
On the good run and the goodwill the team has generated.
That’s playing for England really, and it’s one of the hardest things. With this national team the expectations have always been high, and ultimately you’re judged on results. The goodwill and how we are with everybody is one thing, but if you don’t win football matches that determines the mood. I’m aware of that as the manager and it’s important I take any pressure from the players because we want them to feel free when they play for England. One of the problems we had a few years ago was that the shirt felt very heavy, and it was one of the reasons we perhaps didn’t perform as well as we might have done. I think this group of players relish playing for England, enjoy it, and we’re all looking forward to the World Cup. We’ve got two important matches first that we need to play well in and win. But equally at the back of our minds we’re preparing for one of the greatest things you can be involved in as a player or a manager.
Having gone so close in 2018, and closer still at the EURO, what can you do to take that final step in Qatar?
We learned a lot from both of those tournaments and there were moments in both those matches (the defeats to Croatia in 2018 and Italy in 2021) – quite short periods in actual fact, 10-15 minutes – when we lost control. So we’ve got to keep the ball better in pressure situations, and defensively – as a team – we can be more proactive as well. Sometimes you need to go through those learning experiences. I’m not sure anyone really thought before 2018 that we were a semi-final team. We hadn’t won a knockout match in ten years at that stage. That was different for the EURO and, of course, drawing the final over 90 minutes and extra time we were even closer there. We know there are areas we can be even better in but, equally, we’ve got to keep doing the things that got us to those positions, and keep doing them really well. But our aim has to be to focus on what we can control and that’s improving every aspect of our game as much as we possibly can.