Gareth Southgate has another two years on his contract after this World Cup. So why does it feel as if we are entering the final months of his time as England manager?
Perhaps because he is a smart guy. Perhaps because he will have sensed a change in the national mood. There was criticism after the European Championship last year.
Criticism that he was too cautious, that he froze in the final against Italy as victory slipped from his grasp.
This is not to say his critics are correct. Just that they are out there and growing in number and voice.
If England fail to emulate the last two tournaments under Southgate — and that is a distinct possibility — his final two years could be difficult. Southgate doesn’t need that. He could take a break, return as a club manager. He wouldn’t be short of options.
Then there is the optimistic view. Southgate emerges from Qatar victorious, puts the trophy on the sideboard. His standing will never be higher. Why spend the next campaign trying to recreate magic?
The last three World Cup-winning managers stayed on — Didier Deschamps of France will attempt to be the first since Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo in 1934 and 1938 to win it twice — but the five that preceded did not. From Franz Beckenbauer in 1990 to Marcello Lippi in 2006, every World Cup-winning manager, mission complete, stood down.
And let’s face it, Southgate does not have the 2010 Spanish team of Vicente del Bosque, or Joachim Low’s Germany, 7-1 conquerors of Brazil and South America in 2014. Deschamps, having won in 2018, still leads the tournament favourites in France. England are not of that stature.
If Southgate’s team won in Qatar it would be an unexpected glory. Their progress in Russia in 2018 was wholly surprising and helped by a kind route. There was more confidence at the next European Championship, and an impressive scalp in Germany, yet Qatar is different.
Success at tournaments often depends on avoiding the best teams until deep in the run. Italy got to the semi-finals in 2006 having played Ghana, United States, Czech Republic, Australia and Ukraine.
Brazil in 2002 played Turkey, China, Costa Rica, Belgium — before they got good — England and Turkey again, and then met Germany in the final.
In Qatar, if England win their group and the rest of the tournament goes to plan, the quarter-final opponents are France.
Unless Deschamps’ squad implodes in the coming months — and it is France, so there is always that possibility — it is likely England’s run ends there. And a last-eight exit will be seen as failure for a man whose previous campaigns went deeper.
And that is harsh. France are a good team, the world champions. Their penalty-shootout defeat by Switzerland in the last 16 at the Euros was arguably the shock of the tournament.
Yet it will also become the stick with which to beat Southgate. Switzerland did it — why couldn’t he? He has had more than six years and we are going backwards.
We have seen how it unravels for England managers. Every player he did not pick would have won the World Cup, every selection was out of misplaced loyalty or resistance to change. And why would Southgate hang around for another two years of that?
Begging, perhaps. Begging on the part of the Football Association. For if Southgate goes, who is there to replace him?
A foreign manager? There seems little appetite for that after watching an Englishman make a relative success of the job. Yet what are the options? Graham Potter is newly installed at Chelsea, Eddie Howe oversees a huge and exciting project at Newcastle, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are stellar names but still getting to grips with management.
True, even the most appealing jobs in the Premier League might not have the same cache as managing England. Yet nothing can be presumed. Southgate leaving could cause the FA a massive headache. Southgate staying could cause one for him.
There really is no easy way out for either side, after Qatar.
Forgotten man Spence needs a new adviser!
Djed Spence started for England’s Under 21s in Italy yesterday. Remember him? Broke into the Middlesbrough side, fell out of favour with Neil Warnock, then had a storming loan spell helping to win promotion with Nottingham Forest.
He looked one of the brightest prospects in the country. Then he moved to Tottenham. The money aside, he might as well have moved to Hawaii.
The suggestion is Spence wasn’t Antonio Conte’s signing. He was a bright young player the club identified and recruited. Yet now he’s behind Emerson Royal and Matt Doherty for the right-back spot and has played a single minute of club football all season, as an 89th-minute substitute against Nottingham Forest.
Spence is 22. Someone advised him this was a smart move, just as someone advised Kalvin Phillips to sign for Manchester City. And those people are still in jobs. It’s just that Spence and Phillips no longer do theirs.
Beware Pep’s diabolical plan
Roberto De Zerbi, the new Brighton manager, is a friend of Pep Guardiola and says he can approach him any time for advice.
There may be trouble ahead. The desire to learn from the master appears to have encouraged most Premier League managers to demand their goalkeeper plays out from the back. The problem being there have only ever been about three goalkeepers capable of doing this and Guardiola has all of them.
That’s why the best attacking threat against Arsenal and Chelsea remains their own goalkeeper, with the ball at his feet in the six-yard box.
As plans go, it’s diabolical, but very effective. If Guardiola had a moustache, he’d be twirling it.
Nations League relegation won’t affect England’s Euro 2024 hopes
The match in Milan tonight is said to be significant because there is a genuine chance England could be relegated to Nations League B.
This would exclude them from Europe’s elite band and give England a harder draw for the 2024 European Championship. And a few years ago that would have mattered. Now UEFA have expanded the finallists to 24, it is almost harder to get eliminated at the qualifying stage.
England would have to deliver the most disastrous campaign in recent memory not to make it to Germany.
Indeed, it was only the fact that further expansion to 32 would make the qualifiers unwatchable and unpurchasable by broadcasters that stopped further UEFA bloating. Win or lose in Milan, relegated or safe, England will probably be all right.
WSL still isn’t a proper crowd-puller
There are more than 50,000 expected for the Women’s Super League match between Arsenal and Tottenham tomorrow, breaking the record for a domestic game in England.
And that’s good news, obviously. It was a record crowd of 5,315 for Manchester United at their home in Leigh last weekend, and a record 3,006 for Liverpool at Prenton Park. Yet, as often happens, when gates disappoint in the WSL, the numbers are harder to find.
It was midweek before it was revealed West Ham played Everton in front of 1,118 and Leicester drew only 2,868 against Tottenham, despite playing at the 32,000-capacity King Power Stadium.
A picture in a national newspaper made it appear as if the ground was packed. It wasn’t. The camera focused on the one small part of it open to spectators.
So there is work to do. Arsenal got 3,238 at Boreham Wood — depicted as a sell-out, although Meadow Park’s capacity is 4,500 — and had shed 668 fans by the time they played Ajax there in the Champions League five days later.
This was always going to be the way even after the success of the European Championship. All the talk was of massive percentage increases in tickets sold but when the base is small that is often measured in hundreds or low thousands.
Then there is a marquee occasion, like the north London derby, heavily promoted and supported and trumpeted as an indicator of interest. The next week it is back to reality. Call it Anniversary Games syndrome.
After the 2012 Olympics, the next summer an athletics meeting at the London Stadium drew a packed house. The year after, too. Then, as the event grew less special, the numbers dropped. By the end, West Ham’s family fun day was better attended.
So it’s great the Emirates will break the record this weekend but it’s not the barometer. That can be found in places like Leigh, where interest in women’s football is growing, but still needs nurturing.
It cannot become a big day out once a year. The women’s game needs the weekly commitment that men’s football enjoys if the anticipated bounce is to become real: repeat business, not an annual jamboree.
Are the FA trying to kill their own Cup?
Sporting competitions have to make sense. The narrative has to proceed with established order.
It makes no sense, for instance, that the League Cup is a one-match knockout tournament in each round including the final, yet suddenly becomes a two-legged affair at the semi-final stage.
And it certainly makes no sense that in the FA Cup third round this year, some of the ties will go to replays in the event of a draw, while others will be concluded on the day. The decision on which ties fall into what category will be made after the draw. It’s nonsense.
Either every drawn tie is replayed, or every tie is decided in one game. Fans can follow that. If it transpired the FA were on a secret mission to kill their own competition, it would have more grounding in logic.
De Bruyne is spot on with international football criticism
Kevin De Bruyne is right. International football is becoming repetitive and boring. Wales played Belgium last night for the fourth time in 18 months and the ninth time since September 2012.
‘I think half my international career has been against Wales,’ said De Bruyne. An exaggeration, obviously, but not entirely unjustified.
Three of De Bruyne’s last six internationals have been against Wales, and that’s half.
Sometimes mere coincidence can throw teams together, but UEFA’s protectionist seedings and tournament expansions make regular match-ups more commonplace, too.
It’s little different in the Champions League, with the same clubs kept apart and thrown together.
De Bruyne may also notice that since arriving at Manchester City in 2015, he’s been drawn against Borussia Monchengladbach, Shakhtar Donetsk, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain six times each.
Let’s hope England land 2026 Hockey World Cup hosting rights
England are bidding to host the men’s hockey World Cup in 2026, with the final played at the 62,000 capacity Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
What a fabulous, perhaps transitional, moment for the sport that could be. Hockey is great.
Fast, skilful and utterly uncompromising in its bravery. It is also 11-a-side and shaped by defence, midfield and attack, so easy to pick up for those who follow football.
It’s hard not to be impressed by first sight of an elite hockey game and the idea of a full house watching a World Cup final featuring England is tantalising. Let’s hope it can happen.
Armband-wearing row is ludicrous
It now transpires the armband of empty protest England intend to wear in Qatar is yet to receive permission from FIFA or the hosts.
Technically, the European countries that have gathered together to make this hollow gesture could be excluded from the tournament.
That won’t happen, but how ridiculous this all seems now. They might as well have undertaken a protest that meant something.
Here’s a Super idea
As Todd Boehly will testify, everyone in football is looking for a way to increase existing revenue streams, or exploit new ones. Some ideas — like a North versus South game — are plain bad, others have potential.
The idea of expanding the UEFA Super Cup to a mini-tournament comprising the winners of the three European competitions — including the much-maligned Europa Conference League — and then adding the champions of Major League Soccer, however, has potential.
Half of European football decamps to America in the summer anyway, and this would at least be a pre-season tournament that genuinely meant something.
Presumably, the MLS Cup winners would be hosts, meaning the competition this season would have seen Real Madrid, Eintracht Frankfurt and Roma from Europe, taking on New York City. Held in New York, that would be a good spectacle.
Exclusion of Gabriels shows Brazil’s depth
A lot is made of the favourites for the Qatar World Cup coming from Europe, but Brazil coach Tite has left out Arsenal trio Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel Magalhaes from his most recent squad.
Any group strong enough to exclude the three Gabriels — particularly Jesus in his current form — must have a chance.
Cash-rich LIV golfers top whinging standings
If there is any truth in the old adage that money doesn’t make a person happy, it arrives with the band of LIV Tour golfers. Have you ever heard so much moaning in your entire life?