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There is a bigger picture and, when it matters, Gareth Southgate always seems to see it. Being England manager has always felt as pressurised as Prime Minister of Great Britain but Southgate has almost begun to combine the two roles. Compassionate, patriotic, diplomatic and calm, he has all the tools to unite the most disconnected and disenfranchised of nations at the most crucial time in modern history. If he is criticised for anything, it is actually his tactics and the football itself.

England’s decision to take the knee in response to prolonged racial and social injustice has shown Gareth Southgate at his best but the way he has built smaller bridges since taking over in 2016 has been just as effective. The media don’t feel as vilified within camps, so the players aren’t as vilified on the front or back pages. It is a start, but there aren’t many challenges Southgate will face which are quite as seismic and important in sticking to his principles against pockets of anger at the stance taken before a match kicks off. In the main, the humanitarian approach he has taken to the role has been widely applauded and will only increase his popularity.

On Sunday morning, it felt like Christmas in the baking heat. There were early wake ups and giddy supporters starting their day with a customary alcoholic beverage; it is staple tournament behaviour. That excitement soon turned to dread. It wasn’t a surprise but leaks of Southgate’s team sheet began to infuriate huge swathes of the nation, who took to Twitter to vent at the fact that Kieran Trippier would be starting at left-back, Kalvin Phillips was replacing Jordan Henderson in the midfield double pivot and Raheem Sterling, out of form and out of sorts, was out wide instead of Jack Grealish.

It wasn’t fun to watch, it wasn’t expansive and it certainly wasn’t explosive. Momentum and adrenaline carried England through the first half an hour against Croatia at Wembley, the first home tournament match in 25 years was always going to start like that. Once it subsided and Luka Modric finally got to grips with the game, familiar feelings appeared to engulf the stadium and every watching front room. Suddenly it was flat, uninspired, quiet and nervy. England were acutely aware that they were facing a team who had knocked them out of the last World Cup and it was clearly playing on Southgate’s mind. But he was facing glaring eyes nonetheless.

And then Sterling scored when nobody thought he would. A difficult season with Manchester City, despite yielding 16 goals in all competitions, had seen him fall behind almost all the competition in the eyes of fans. Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were also seen as back-up to Grealish in many an ideal world; his stock is as high as its ever been and there were calls for his introduction in the second half. Sterling, fresh from being awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, ripped the narrative up and wrote his own. He’s used to doing that.

By full time, nobody was questioning his inclusion or the belief Gareth Southgate has in him. It was an inspired piece of man-management, just like Terry Venables at Euro ’96 when Alan Shearer hadn’t scored for two years in an England shirt. As hard as it was to believe that Shearer would go through a run like that, given that he was simultaneously inspiring Blackburn Rovers to a maiden Premier League title in that time, Venables instantly lifted the weight off his shoulders by telling him he’d start the first game against Switzerland.

Shearer played, scored and won the Golden Boot. While a repeat is probably beyond Sterling, his inclusion was the ultimate vindication of the Gareth Southgate approach. He picks and plays those he trusts but that loyalty is always repaid. There is a brilliant blend to his team, none of the division of the Sven-Goran Eriksson era and nothing is as uptight as under Fabio Capello. This is a young, fledgling group but it is full of grit, determination and supreme game management and a desire to never give up; led by Gareth Southgate and embodied by Sterling.

It was Phillips who really stole the show in the end. Henderson’s fitness issues had seemingly opened the door for Jude Bellingham, a 17-year-old with a head 10 years wiser on his shoulders. The idea of two holding midfielders has been a constant source of angst for supporters and sections of the press, but Gareth Southgate was well aware that Modric proved the difference in the World Cup meeting.

Rice offered steel, Phillips supplied guile. Not only has the Leeds United man become adept at dictating a game thanks to Marcelo Bielsa but he showed his intelligence and control by floating through the gaps in midfield before weighting the perfect through ball and registering an assist. Bellingham came on later and instantly left his mark on Modric, too. There are options for Southgate but he made the right choice in the end.

Scotland are next, on Friday at Wembley again. They need the win after defeat to Czech Republic. England are in the best possible position, having dealt with their toughest assignment on paper without any drama whatsoever. Gareth Southgate has hinted at changes and there will undoubtedly be murmurs that follow. He isn’t afraid to make big, often unpopular calls and is proving himself to be a leader both on and off the training pitch.

 


 

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