“It is a game that inevitably will live with us forever,” Gareth Southgate said, and it feels a little closer now, the bad memories back to the front of everybody’s minds. Italy are in town on Saturday night, albeit it is Wolverhampton rather than London, for the latest instalment of the cluttered end-of-season Nations League programme and England, once again, must remember that defeat.
The recap is unnecessary. Suffice to say that Italy finished a tumultuous Wembley occasion with the Euro 2020 trophy last summer and what happened off the pitch meant that much of what had led up to the day was overshadowed.
Southgate does not want it to be that way. Frankly, why should it when his team had beaten Germany en route to only the nation’s second appearance at a major men’s final? When Southgate talks about his runners-up medal, he does not do so with British reticence or self-consciousness but pride.
“Without a doubt,” the manager said. “I’ve never received a medal and not cherished it for what it is because to get medals means you’ve got to finals and to get to finals is an incredible achievement. I would never throw a [runners-up] medal away. I think sometimes players feel they’ve almost got to be seen to be doing that. In the overall context of anything, getting to finals is where you want to be. They’re the games that matter.”
For Southgate, the subject was appreciation and it came to focus on that for his near six-year England tenure and, yes, himself. “I sense where the room is with it,” he said, as he addressed a group of newspaper journalists at St George’s Park and, surely, a much wider digital audience, who are rarely slow to pile in whenever he and his team stumble.
Which is where we are after the flat 1-0 defeat to Hungary in Budapest last Saturday and, to a lesser but still tangible extent, the 1-1 draw against Germany in Munich on Tuesday, when an encouraging Jack Grealish-driven push in the final 20 minutes papered over the cracks of the previous 70.
“I won’t outstay my welcome,” Southgate added. He has said it before but he was saying it now, which in the context of the moment, with theincessant moaning about why he does not prefer certain players (namely, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Grealish), why he shows loyalty to others (especially Harry Maguire), why he does not always use an extra attacking midfielder, felt startling.
Southgate wanted to engage, he wanted to push his side of things, his approach, which before the final against Italy had got England to a World Cup semi-final in 2018. Don’t take all that for granted, he seemed to want to scream, only screaming is not his style.
He mentioned the man on the street and how he totally understood his desire to see “a Grealish with a Sterling, with a Saka” but it had to be about balance, however unglamorous that might sound. Then came the defiance.
“That balance of the team to get to a semi-final and final has been pretty good,” Southgate said. “Maybe we’ve talked for years about why we haven’t got there. Maybe having the balance of that hasn’t been where it might have been.”
The Grealish thing is back on the agenda, the Manchester City winger having shone after coming on for Mason Mount against Germany. Mount is another player who some fans do not always appreciate.
“I’m guessing the suggestion is we shouldn’t have played Mount,” Southgate said. “But without the job Mount did on [Joshua] Kimmich, we don’t get a result in the game. So Mount’s contribution was crucial and Jack’s contribution was crucial. And there’ll be moments where that could be Bukayo or Raheem or [Phil] Foden, who we haven’t had available [because of Covid].”
It felt to most observers that Mount had not been hugely effective; that Kimmich had called the tune in midfield. But on to Alexander-Arnold, who was the only England player to be named in the PFA Team of the Year. Southgate made the point that the right-back had not been fit for the Euros last summer, had pulled out of the March programme and had been able to play only against Hungary in the current window – after a relentless season.
“Trent is a fantastic player, I don’t think anybody has ever heard me say differently,” Southgate said. “But I have three amazing right-backs with Kyle Walker and Reece James. The way Liverpool play gets absolutely the best out of Trent and that’s to do with the pressing, the way they defend, the diagonal sliding of the defence. They get him into those forward areas, which is what we tried to do with him from wing-back against Hungary.”
Southgate did not need to explain how he lives and breathes the job but he did and what preoccupies him is how to take better care of the ball against Italy – when compared with the second half of last summer’s final – especially in the defensive third when building up; how to move it quickly and into the right spaces to beat the press.
“It’s an area we all recognise we need to improve,” Southgate said. “Some of that is positioning, some is technique, some is decision-making. It’s been a theme for us.” There have been plenty of others and there comes a point when they grind you down. Southgate, though, has learned to live through it.