These are unusual times to be a football manager and, for the man in charge of England, there was an admission that the criticism of his team’s performances against Iceland and Denmark last month wounded him more than he had expected.
Gareth Southgate, reflecting on those first games in 10 months that produced a single goal and precious little inspiration, found it hard at times to disguise his own frustration at the reaction. “I was sort of accused of being a cautious manager,” he says. “Really! On the back of being the top scorers in Europe in qualifying. And I think we scored more goals than any previous England team at the World Cup. So it was a bit harsh on one game.”
It is unlike Southgate to take much of it personally but this had clearly stung and, as he named a 30-man squad for the games at Wembley against Wales and in the Nations League against Belgium and Denmark, there was no relenting in the issues. The seeds of what could be a draining feud with Jose Mourinho have been planted and although Southgate attempted to make light of it, there are no friendly rows to be had with the Tottenham manager. By way of example, Mourinho is now referring to Southgate as “Gary”.
As Southgate steeled himself for a run of withdrawals ahead of the Wales friendly on Thursday, he said he had anticipated his players would be under-conditioned last month, and that their lack of preparation time would affect the September games. Since then he has rationalised the problem: the Covid-19 era has changed the rules for all managers, but in particular those in charge of international teams who have barely seen their players in the past 12 months.
“There is no point worrying about that, but I did take it personally in September, because you want it to be perfect,” he says. “You haven’t had a team for 10 months and you know as a coach you’re going to be judged on that game as if you’ve been developing all through that period. So I have to park my ego and remind myself it’s not about me, it’s about the team, how we develop and improve. My job is to reflect, review, improve, and it’s a constant cycle. That’s the challenge leading to the Euros.”
Since then he has been in conversation with Eddie Jones and Chris Silverwood, his peers in rugby union and cricket respectively, about how they compensate for the lack of contact with players. The embers of the Phil Foden-Mason Greenwood episode are still glowing one month on and, on top of that, Southgate is trying to ascertain the fitness of all the players at his disposal, leaving out the likes of James Maddison and Ross Barkley because of a lack of game time.