England fans are starting to get exciting about their prospects at the World Cup, and a lot of that is down to the work of Gareth Southgate.
Southgate’s appointment as Sam Allardyce’s successor hardly captured the imagination around the country, but there is plenty of positivity now after a bright start to the World Cup.
We’ve looked at seven areas in which Southgate has impressed both ahead of and during this summer’s tournament.
One of the first and possibly most impressive tasks Southgate completed after taking over from Allardyce was his solving of The Wayne Rooney Problem.
Whereas Allardyce admitted he allowed Rooney to play “wherever he wanted to” – and suggested he did not have the authority to do otherwise – after his solitary game in charge against Slovakia, Southgate quietly moved on his inherited captain with an understated ease.
Crucially, he did not try to make a grand statement – a la Steve McClaren and David Beckham – by immediately dropping Rooney altogether. Instead, England’s former talisman was given the chance to impress his new boss but had it made clear he was not guaranteed a starting place when he was benched for Southgate’s second match in charge.
Perhaps this was the gentle nudge Rooney required to call it a day at international level, and it was an early feather in the cap of Southgate.
Likewise, Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere and Gary Cahill have all been given opportunities to prove their worth to Southgate, who has also made it clear they must be performing regularly for their club sides.
Only Cahill has managed avoid the cull, but the Chelsea defender has lost his place in the starting XI, despite being one of the more experienced players in the squad.
At the same time as making clear England’s senior players were no longer secure of a spot in the squad, Southgate has sought to reward the youth who have been involved in the country’s remarkable success down the age groups.
Lewis Cook and Dominic Solanke have made their senior debuts after winning the Under-20 World Cup, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s superb form in Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final saw the right-back earn his place in the squad for Russia, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has emerged in midfield and Jordan Pickford has established himself as the No.1.
Tammy Abraham, Harry Winks and Joe Gomez have also appeared, while the younger players who appeared under previous regimes have continued to be nurtured.
“We have some young players who are able to use the ball,” Southgate said last October. “We have to invest our time in those guys and allow them the opportunity to improve.”
World Cup 2018 squads number-crunched by age and experience pic.twitter.com/bXf74q26od
— Nick Harris (@sportingintel) June 4, 2018
“There was a time when I was battling with Frank Lampard to start in the England midfield alongside Steven Gerrard and maybe that was a missed opportunity for me. But he was in a Chelsea side challenging for the Champions League under Jose Mourinho and I was at Newcastle,” Jermaine Jenas told us earlier this month.
“I got the impression that Sven really liked me at the time, but I was at a club that was on the slide a little and that worked against me.”
Suddenly, that no longer appears to be the case in the England set-up.
Despite featuring regularly for Manchester United, Chris Smalling has been told he does not possess the attributes Southgate requires in a centre-back, while the aforementioned Cahill has just captained Chelsea to FA Cup glory but finds himself behind Leicester City’s Harry Maguire in the pecking order.
It has often been a gripe of England supporters that players in form at smaller clubs have been overlooked for bigger names from more successful teams, but Sunderland, Stoke City, Southampton, Swansea City, Crystal Palace, Burnley, Bournemouth and West Brom have all been represented under Southgate.
Despite a reputation for “four-four-f*cking-two”, England have been wedded to a variation of 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 in recent years, and Southgate did indeed start by playing those systems.
He first experimented with a back three in the 1-0 defeat against Germany in March 2017, but it was the 2-2 draw in Scotland – in which England deployed a back four and Southgate was left unimpressed by their ability to play out from defence – that convinced the manager the switch should be made permanent.
The change to three at the back has been one of Southgate’s most obvious decisions, but he has also made subtle tweaks within that system. After initially deploying Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson as holding midfielders, the Tottenham man has been sacrificed for either Dele Alli or Loftus-Cheek at the World Cup to provide more creativity and a greater fluidity in attack.
Changing the formation is one thing, but Southgate had already seen plenty of his players play in similar systems at club level.
The choice of Kyle Walker at centre-back, however, was completely out of left-field, and took everyone by surprise.
“Nobody got the story about Kyle Walker starting for England a while back as part of a back three. Nobody got that,” former Fleet Street hack Christoper Davies told us.
“If you or I had been able to say ‘Gareth Southgate will play Kyle Walker in a back three this week’ that’s what I would call an exclusive. Nobody expected it to happen and it happened.”
Okay, this might not exactly win England the World Cup – although you can always have a punt on them with Betway – but it has helped rebuild the relationship between the team and fans.
Compared to, say, the bluster of Sam Allardyce or the cold shoulder of Fabio Capello, the England set-up feels much more refreshing and positive this summer, which is reflected in the fevered celebrations of supporters both in Russia and back home.
It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.
Sure, England are yet to play a decent team, but as Barney Ronay wrote in The Guardian: ‘Compare this with the paralysing horror, the fear, the constipated style of the last five tournaments.
‘England did not expect. They came to Russia with no real sense of hope, but with a gathering affection for this team and the admirable Southgate.
‘They are already in credit. This was free. This was fun. This was a day that felt like a quiet kind of redemption whatever happens next.’
Fun! Actual fun watching England! It hasn’t always been this way. Enjoy it.