Big Interview with Gareth Southgate: Boss's Russia vision played out as planned
He said he wanted to unite the country and make supporters proud.
England may have exited the World Cup at the semi-final stage, but Gareth Southgate still achieved his primary aim.
Two months ago, the 47-year-old sat down for an exclusive chat with the Express & Star to detail his expectations for the World Cup.
And what’s happened since can only be described as remarkable.
Southgate has seen his public persona transformed. His waistcoats have made him a fashion icon. But most importantly, he has made the country fall in love with the national team again.
And now, despite the years of hurt rumbling on, we can all look forward with optimism.
Southgate’s intelligence, humility and football nous have made him a national treasure.
Desire to reconnect
Of course, the journey to this point was anything but plain sailing for the former Villa man.
From missing that iconic penalty against Germany at Euro 96 to inheriting an England side on its knees following the shock defeat to Iceland and sudden departure of Sam Allardyce.
Nevertheless, the charismatic and charming Southgate that England would soon fall in love was on display at Walsall Banks’s Stadium two months ago.
And his words gave a brief glimpse into what was about to come.
“Success would be that we have come back from Russia proud of what we have done,” the manager said.
“For sure that means we will have to win some games. I don’t think people will be too impressed if we don’t.
“But I think a lot will depend on how we play and the way we are as a group.
“I think there has been a bit of a disconnect between the team and the public.
“We want to get that back. We have got some very talented young players who are characters.
“They are England fans as well. I think it’s important the supporters are aware the players are fans as well.
“The squad we pick is going to do everything it can to make the nation proud.”
Starting from scratch
Southgate knew for England to have any success in Russia he’d have to rip up the blueprint and start again.
Defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 was the final straw for many supporters.
And it was followed by a laborious and uninspiring qualifying campaign that failed to lift the mood.
“We qualified but it was flat,” Southgate continued. “The performances were not as we hoped.
“We sat down as a coaching staff and looked at how to move forward.
“We talked about how we wanted to play and who might be the players that can play in that way.
“That is when we decided to go to a back three. We tried it for the first time in the friendly against Lithuania.
“We put Harry Maguire in for his first game. We put John Stones into the middle of the three.
“There were certain things we wanted to start to look at straight away.
“And I think everyone can see from the friendlies we then played against Holland and Italy that the team is starting to play in the style we are looking for.
“It is still going to take time. But that is the way I believe we should play.”
If the Three Lions beat Belgium in the third-place play-off today, only the victorious 1966 side will have done better at a World Cup.
It has been a thoroughly enjoyable journey with some impressive performances along the way, most notably the 6-1 thumping of Panama.
And Southgate made it clear two months ago he wanted his team to be on the front foot.
“I took the job because I believe English players can play,” he said. “I think it’s important we have energy, speed, technical ability and are brave in how we play.
“I want our defenders to play out from the back, that is really important.
“If we are going to be a successful team and beat the top, top teams – that is what we are going to have to be able to do.
“We want to play in an attacking style, I think that is now starting to come through.
“But at the moment we haven’t beaten those top teams so we have loads still to prove.”
Change in mindset
Having been part of squads that failed at major tournaments in the past, Southgate knows all too well the expectancy that comes with playing for the Three Lions.
He won the last of his 54 caps in 2004.
He has also seen numerous players fail to cope with the pressure after pulling on the famous white shirt.
And it was the mindset of English players he was most eager to change – with the boss happy to draw on his famous penalty miss at Euro 96 if it meant helping England’s current stars.
“I think in the past with England we have been too worried about what could go wrong,” Southgate said. “That’s been the focus instead of what we can achieve.
“I don’t have that because I have been through the most difficult thing, in a professional sense, that I am ever going to experience with that penalty miss.
“I’m thinking of how we make the team better and how we can play in a way that people will enjoy rather than what happens if we lose.
“I think that is an important mindset. Sometimes we talk about what might go wrong rather than how good we might be.
“I want the players at the World Cup to be looking at – and be excited by – what they can achieve because I’m very confident in their ability.”
Southgate’s experience with penalties helped England win their first shoot-out in 22 years in Russia.
It no doubt helped that the boss made sure the Three Lions camp was much more relaxed than it had been in his playing days.
Over the past few months, we have seen England be open with the press. We have also seen numerous pictures of the players enjoying themselves and having fun in training.
And Southgate always wanted their base in Repino to be a place they could relax.
“It’s really important we get the balance right when it comes to working and relaxing,” the boss said while speaking at the Banks’s Stadium. “The level of intensity is so high.
“Most weekends, there are 10 Premier League matches so 20 clubs and 20 stories.
“The focus of the media is spread across a lot of big characters.
“But come the summer, there is only one story. We do have a bigger media focus.
“We need that balance of being able to do as many normal things as we can, while also being aware that as soon as the players step outside the hotel there is likely to be a camera in their face.
“That is why we have taken an area that is a little quieter but is close enough so the guys’ families can come in.
“It hit me when I was at the World Cup in Brazil, we stayed in a hotel with the Dutch.
“Louis van Gaal was the manager of Holland and they got to the semi-finals.
“It was only a small thing but the night before games, the families would come in to get their tickets.
“They sat down and it was really relaxed. I think at times with England, it’s been a bit uptight, again we’ve been worrying about what might go wrong.
“But let’s think how good we can be. I want the players to play with confidence and to go for things.
“You can’t say play without fear because there will always be fear.
“But I want the defenders to bring the ball out. I want midfielders to express themselves.
“Otherwise you finish and look back and feel you were inhibited in those games – that you didn’t play as you could have done.”
Southgate showed he wasn’t afraid to make big calls when he famously dropped Wayne Rooney during the World Cup qualifying campaign.
But overall he felt he wasn’t bold enough on the road to Russia.
The calls he has made since switching to a back three, though, have certainly been brave.
Chris Smalling was dropped from the squad completely despite some impressive performances at the heart of Manchester United’s defence.
Instead, Southgate opted to convert Man City’s Kyle Walker from a full-back to a centre-half.
And there were significant positional tweaks for a host of other players.
Raheem Sterling, who usually operates out wide, was deployed as a central striker alongside Harry Kane.
While Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, who are normally number 10s for their clubs, were pushed back into a deeper midfield role.
Two months ago, it appeared England had few options in the middle of the park with a host of fans clamouring for Jack Wilshere to be taken to Russia.
Southgate, though, always knew he had players at his disposal who were versatile and able to play in different roles.
“The rationale for the change of system was to get a few more offensive players into the midfield area,” he said. “You still need stability behind that. But it means we have been able to get more attack-minded players on to the pitch and get more numbers higher up the pitch when we are in those attacking areas.
“The messages we are giving players are clear.
“And the more they do it, the easier that will be. A lot of them have played similar formations with their clubs and even if they haven’t played in those exact positions, they are in areas of the pitch where they do their best work.
“For example, playing Kyle Walker in a back three, although it seems different, he is in that position a lot for Manchester City so it shouldn’t feel uncomfortable for him. It’s not something that is completely alien.
“I think that’s really important when selecting players to play for England.
“You want them to be able to replicate the form they are producing for their club.
“You want them to be comfortable in the position they play.”
As well as winning back the support of the nation, Southgate wanted to make sure England departed Russia with the belief they can win things on the international stage.
Making it through to the semi-finals has done that with fans already excited about the European Championships in 2020.
And that is Southgate’s ultimate goal, to have long-term success while in charge of the national side.
“We have got a lot to be optimistic about,” he added. “We have had great success at youth level.
“Our under-17s and under-20s are World Cup winners.
“Our under-19s won the European Championships and our under-21s came third.
“I’m working closely with all those teams, I sit in on their meetings whenever I can and I know all the players.
“The important thing is these players can see a pathway to the first team and that they aren’t burdened by what’s happened in the past.
“The thing I’m most excited about is that we have so many talented players coming through.
“There is so much potential there. And it’s exciting because they are players who can make a difference in games.
“Best of all, those players are only going to improve over the next few years.
“What we don’t want to do is limit their belief in what they can achieve going forward because their potential is very exciting.”