It could be said, at least initially, that Gareth Southgate was in denial. That could easily apply to his comments that John Stones and Harry Maguire were “absolutely outstanding on the ball”, or that it wasn’t a game for Phil Foden in the middle “because he doesn’t play there for his club”.
It is really, however, about the result of all that. A very noisy number of England fans at the Al Bayt were again booing Southgate. It was of course loudest at the final whistle. Given Southgate’s response, the Simpsons meme from Waylon Smithers to Mr. Burns has never been more apt. “Were we booed off, though? I’m not sure if that was aimed at us. I don’t know.”
When pressed on it, and told there was no real reason for any other boos, Southgate went from denial to an element of defiance.
“Look, of course I want our fans to go home happy and our fans at home to have a smile on their faces, so we haven’t quite managed to achieve that today.
“But people are going to react how they react and I can’t let that affect how I feel about the team. The objective is to quality. We have three games to do it and I imagine most teams in the competition will take three games to do it. We have to stay calm in these moments.”
Southgate is of course correct on that point. While this performance did warrant criticism, and raised greater concerns, it’s only four days since England scored six against a good Iran. He’s also right that most campaigns have lulls.
What is more interesting here, however, is how willing a significant proportion of England fans are to be anything but calm. They’re primed to really go for him, and quite angrily. It is something that has always been rumbling there with Southgate, ready to come out at the most drop-off – like, say, a 0-0 draw to a decent side just days after you’ve won 6-2.
The England manager is actually a deeply divisive figure for a national hero.
Some of this is undeniably down to his stances on social issues. Given how right-wing and reactionary a core of England’s support can be, there is a considerable rump who are just waiting to have a go. It was articulated in the boos for taking the knee. It is read by Southgate in so many letters.
“I have probably alienated certain fans,” he told the New York Times on the eve of the World Cup. “I am comfortable with that.”
We should also be comfortable dismissing the boos that come from that sector. They should not really be given credence. The more uncomfortable reality, however, is that they do not represent all the dissent. You only have to talk to fans around games or look at social media.
It’s an irony, and something rather striking, that some of Southgate’s most ardent critics are those that would support his stances; that would consider themselves woke. It all comes from the idea that he is reactionary and conservative coach in terms of the football. Or, worse, just not up to it.
This is why chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” at Molineux in June came from more people than just angry red-faced men.
Many sincerely believe it. There is a widespread view that Southgate does not know how to get the best out of this talented group, that any progress has happened in spite of him; that he is “wasting” them.
It represents a curious reversal of the England manager’s traditional relationship with the supporters and the media. Southgate is a rare manager who probably has softer responses from the press than the fans. Much of that anger comes not just from the football but the explanations for the football, and the manager’s outlook.
You could immediately sense which comments after the USA game would enrage certain fans. There was that on Stones and Maguire, and the level of the opposition.
“I thought we actually controlled the game really well, our two centre-backs were absolutely outstanding on the ball. To play with such composire against the sort of pressure and angles that the USA team press with is unbelievably difficult and only when you have two players like we have that you appreciate the strain of the game that they can take.”
There was that on Foden.
“We wanted to change the wide areas, we didn’t think it was a game for Phil in the middle because he doesn’t play there for his club and defensively it was a really complicated game for the midfield three to work out.”
Many would have been all too willing to point out that Foden has more recent experience there than some of his choices for this game, like Marcus Rashford on the right or – as the more acerbic might have it – Maguire at centre-half.
But it’s another area where Southgate is right. Calm is needed here, too.
There’s first of all the fact that, for all the talk of what a Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola might do with England, elite coaches in their prime are rarely interested in the international game any more. Luis Enrique and Hansi Flick are only involved because of career circumstances.
It means that Southgate is more adept than most. And even if his tactical instinct is usually towards the conservative or the rigid or the defensive, he is genuinely good at some of the other elements of the role that are just as important. Southgate is clearly exceptional at man-management. The players love him from that perspective. He is also good at the emotional coaching of the group and setting the right tone. This should not be so easily dismissed. It has, in part, propelled Didier Deschamps to the World Cup. Many more tactically gifted coaches don’t have the same communication skills to deliver their messages.
There’s secondly the basic fact that, regardless of the evolution in talent, Southgate has been a history-making manager for England. He has delivered their best and most consistent tournament performances outside of 1966.
That is with a squad that probably isn’t covered in as many areas as the so-called golden generation, even if its overall talent level is greater.
He of course deserved his chance at this World Cup, let alone some slack after a performance as slack as this. He doesn’t deserve the boos. It has long been evident, however, that he is going to get them for the slightest thing.
“Look, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of noise,” Southgate said in Al Bayt. “This is the tournament of external noise. We’ve added another layer to that, I’m sure.”
There is also another layer to the noise around Southgate himself.