Gareth Southgate on England's X-factor that can win the World Cup

‘We’re not better than the boys of ’96 or 2006, but we do have something they didn’t’: Gareth Southgate backs his current England crop as he reveals the X-factor that can win the World Cup next year

  • Previous England sides in 1996 and 2006 were stacked with world-class talent 
  • The current England team is not unique in its players’ superb technical abilities 
  • But Gareth Southgate’s 2021 crop have a real X-factor which can help them win 
  • Three Lions boss Southgate has fostered a real sense of camaraderie in the team 

Rio Ferdinand was shaking his head, partly in disbelief but also with a wry smile on his face. A scene was being related to him. Manchester City had just beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in September. 

Post match, Mason Mount has bumped into Jack Grealish and Phil Foden and taken the chance to catch up, no doubt chatting about of the summer that was Euro 2020.

The three stood around talking animatedly for five minutes, when Ben Chilwell joined them and was greeted warmly. The quartet kept talking into the evening, looking like any group of mates planning a Saturday night out, just with slightly-more expensive designer washbags than the average pub team.

England manager Gareth Southgate has revealed the X-factor that can help his side succeed

Now imagine Ferdinand having a pleasant post-match chat with Jamie Carragher and Steve Gerrard after Manchester United had lost to Liverpool back in 2006? 

Maybe Gary Neville saunters along, eager to join the cheery get-together of England teammates, warmly embracing Carragher and Gerrard? ‘No!’ says Ferdinand smirking. ‘It wouldn’t have happened. (But) these guys have a great culture that they’ve built over years.’

And there, encapsulated in that moment, is the key reason to be hopeful about England, the nub of why Southgate is a fine coach of the national team. 

Greatness or not will be judged in Qatar next year, though for some time he likely to be regarded as the best England manager other than Sir Alf Ramsey. (A low bar, perhaps).

The culture Ferdinand speaks about is what Southgate has brought to English football and this is why a nation can be expectant on Monday night when the team completes the formality of beating San Marino and qualifying for Qatar 2022.

‘We’ve always had good players,’ said Southgate in the aftermath of the 5-0 first-half crushing of Albania on Friday night. ‘I’m not convinced that our players are better than the team in 2004 or 2006 and that sort of period,’ he continued, referencing Ferdinand’s golden generation. 

Indeed, those that argue Southgate has unique riches as his disposal should weigh that statement soberly having considered that Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney played with Ferdinand.

England’s Euro ’96 side made it the semi-finals of the European Championship on home soil

Ferdinand played with team-mates including David Beckham (left) and Michael Owen who along with the defender were part of a star studded squad in 2006

‘I’m not certain we’re better than ’96 or ’98 when I played,’ Southgate went on. Indeed. 

David Seaman, Stuart Pearce, Tony Adams, Paul Ince, Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, Steve McManaman. It is decidedly not the case that Southgate’s generation are the first group of extremely talented English footballers since 1966.

‘But this group have got a lot of potential and have really blended well as a team,’ Southgate added. ‘They have formed a very strong bond and the way they have worked for each other has produced some really good performances and exceptional results.’

That is the difference. You can argue that perhaps this squad have more depth than before. Sven Goran Eriksson’s golden generation, which would have been thrilled to achieve the results Southgate’s team has, did fall away somewhat after the first eleven.

However, this team has ready-made equivalent replacements in every positions other for Harry Kane and possibly Jordan Pickford, though Aaron Ramsdale is making a strong case that even the goalkeeper’s loss wouldn’t be fatal.

Players from rival clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham get on well

England players celebrate Harry Maguire’s goal against Albania on Friday night

The key reason for trusting Southgate is that England were once a collection of talented individuals thrown together on the pitch. This generation are a genuine team, forged in the crucible of Southgate’s England experiences.

Maybe it was the camping trip on Woodbury Common back in 2017 that started all this, though barely any of those who survived the overnight bivouacking with the Royal Marines back then are part of the squad now. 

So perhaps it is the shared experience of winning a first penalty shoot-out since 1996 against Colombia on a balmy night in Moscow, or beating Germany in knock-out football for the first time in 55 years and making the nation’s first final since 1966. 

However he did it, Southgate has discovered the equivalent of English football’s alchemy. We don’t know if will create gold but he at least seems to have assembled the ingredients. No guarantees of course. He might well be out-smarted by a sharper coach in a quarter-final next year. 

Southgate has created a real sense of camaraderie and companionship in the England camp

Mason Mount (left), Jack Grealish (second right) and Phil Foden (right) were spotted sharing an animated chat after a Premier League match between Mount’s Chelsea and Manchester City

His caution may get the better of him, though you suspect that when he plays 3-4-3, and is berated for being negative, he would like to point to the opening 20 minutes against Italy in the Euro 2020 final or the opening half on Friday against Albania.

With Reece James rampaging down the wing and Ben Chilwell doing similar on the left flank is was very much like watching Thomas Tuchel’s take on a back five, which, of course, isn’t defensive at all. 

In the Euros, England never pressed the opposition as effectively as they did against Albania. Maybe a plan is coming together. Or maybe Albania were just very bad.

Whatever, Kane, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and those flying wing backs didn’t give their opponents a single moment to settle. England looked like a team possessed, yet there was there clear strategy in their movement.

That is something Manchester United completely lack at present and may account for the fact that Harry Maguire suddenly looked an international defender again.

Rio Ferdinand has wryly admitted that sort of friendliness was not shared in his England days

Ferdinand played for the Three Lions between 1997 and 2011 – pictured above in May 2010

It was all glorious entertainment, the caveat being that a better side than Albania would have exploited the Kyle Walker miss-pass at 1-0, which brought a fine save from Jordan Henderson.

In the opening twenty minutes, both sides were wide open, though it was Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips who dominated those spaces. ‘Tonight we played exceptionally well in the first half, but gave away three balls that could have ended up in the back of our net,’ said Southgate.

‘One of them [the Kyle Walker mistake] Jordan Pickford had to make an excellent save. So we’ve got to keep evolving and keep improving.’

England might yet fall to the vagaries that bedevil football tournaments when they travel to Qatar. The width of a post might deny them or an unfortunate draw might pair them with a leading team early on. Tournament football is not a precise science and the best teams don’t always win.

That said, for all the moaning around VAR, the great lottery of a bizarre decision has been broadly eliminated from elite football. Refereeing was once the huge curveball at World Cups. This is now less so than ever before. So England have a chance.

Southgate isn’t the best football coach in the world but he might be the best coach in the world. He uniquely understands the challenges, the history and the demands. And in Qatar next year those demands will be like no other tournaments.

Last week it was confirmed just what next autumn would look like. Next year’s Premier League season starts on August 6th, a week earlier than this season. It will break on November 14th. 

By then Southgate’s players might have completed 16 Premier League games and a full round of Champions League group stage fixtures. The upside will be that players get a three-week break this summer. And they will come to Qatar half way through a season rather than at the end of an energy-sapping title run-in.

Consider that in preparation for Russia 2018, Southgate had four weeks of preparation. For Qatar, players will play for their clubs on November 14th, fly out to Qatar two days later and need to be ready to play for England on November 21st.

‘Ahead of Russia we had 28 days with the first group of players that arrived,’ said Southgate. ‘So the difference is stark. Seven days. And, of course, the players will have played on the Saturday and Sunday so they won’t be able to train for the first couple of days.

‘Then, I’m assuming we’ll have to fly then in as, normally, you have to be in country five days ahead of the tournament. But then all countries will be pretty much in the same boat, so there’s no use moaning about it. It’s just going to be a different sort of preparation. 

‘Next season is unique. Normally we go into tournaments picking up the pieces at the end of a season. The unknown is what will happen with the tight turnaround after the last league matches. Sometimes when you pick up any injuries before summer tournaments, you have a few weeks to get things right. 

‘That won’t be possible for any of the countries that qualify, so everybody is going to have to select their squad in a very short period of time. It is going to be key to get those decisions right.’

Southgate’s summary of 2021 was apt. ‘I think that there is still a long way to go and room for improvement.’ That said, it has been the best of times that England have enjoyed for more than half a century.

South Of The River, a three-part docuseries and the latest instalment in the BT Sport Films series, will premiere on BT Sport 1 on November 23 at 10.30pm.

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