Following a Euro 2020 final heartbreak and a gut-wrenching 2022 World Cup quarter-final elimination, the Three Lions will have another shot at international glory next summer.
Southgate’s side had won their opening five Euro 2024 qualifiers before sharing the spoils with Ukraine in their most recent Group C outing, laying the groundwork for a fourth successive Euro appearance.
However, the question remains – can England win a piece of silverware under the 53-year-old’s stewardship?
New formation brings new dawn
While 2022 wasn’t an impressive year for Southgate by any stretch of the imagination, 2023 has seemingly provided a change of scenery.
After England relinquished their top-tier status in the UEFA Nations League last summer, finishing bottom of Group A/3, the often-criticised manager has altered his tactical approach.
Southgate’s decision to switch from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 has seen the Three Lions go from strength to strength since returning home from Qatar last winter.
Often accused of ‘killing’ his team’s potential with his defensive-minded football, the former Middlesbrough manager has turned the corner this calendar year.
His men have improved both offensively and defensively in 2023. The numbers speak for themselves.
England conceded 14 goals in 11 games from their 1-0 Nations League loss to Hungary last summer to their final World Cup fixture, more than any other top nation in this sequence.
Since switching to a new formation, they have only conceded three in six outings despite facing just two shots on target, with Harry Maguire scoring an own goal in a 3-1 friendly win over Scotland last time out.
But tightening up at the back has not come at the expense of the Three Lions’ attacking output. In fact, they have excelled in the front third.
They’ve scored 19 goals since the World Cup, outperforming their tally spanning between the Nations League opener and a World Cup quarter-final exit.
Except for a 1-1 draw against Ukraine in their most recent Euro qualifier, England have netted at least two goals in their remaining five internationals in 2023.
Though those are all promising signs, Southgate can still make one potentially title-defining improvement to bolster his side’s chances in Germany.
Questionable selection choices
England will play Australia in a friendly on Friday night before facing off against bitter continental rivals Italy in a mouth-watering Euro 2024 qualifier next Tuesday.
Despite having a pool of top talents and in-form players plying their trade in the best Premier League clubs, Southgate has stubbornly stuck to his usual choices.
His October selection has prompted negative responses from the fans, with several underperforming stars and those whose careers are dwindling retaining their places in the squad.
As it seems, there’s nothing Maguire can do to convince Southgate to remove him from the list.
After becoming a fringe player at Manchester United, the troubled defender added to his woes by scoring an own goal against Scotland last month.
But he has still received a call-up, unlike Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa, who has been in scintillating form at the start of the new Premier League campaign.
Jordan Pickford remains Southgate’s number-one choice between the sticks, while Nick Pope’s phenomenal performances for Newcastle United have been insufficient to earn him the England manager’s trust.
A case can even be made for Pope’s club teammate, Anthony Gordon, who is on the margins despite enjoying his life at St James’ Park.
Regardless of Marcus Rashford’s dip in form, Southgate prefers the Man Utd forward over the Magpies’ up-and-coming talent.
While Southgate could be forgiven for those omissions, his decision to overlook West Ham United playmaker James Ward-Prowse cannot go unnoticed.
The 28-year-old has been one of the best-performing midfielders in the Premier League this season, but the Three Lions boss has somehow failed to notice his rise to stardom.
He has opted for Manchester City outcast Kalvin Phillips and Al-Ettifaq veteran Jordan Henderson, even though Ward-Prowse has been in far better shape than both.
Relying on familiar faces without giving others the benefit of the doubt can be counterproductive, and Southgate should grasp that before it’s too late.
Not many teams in world football boast a more formidable cast of players than England.
However, ‘players don’t win trophies, teams win trophies’, as Jose Mourinho once said.
Southgate has been unable to find that much-needed cutting edge across his three previous tournaments in charge.
The Three Lions have often failed to translate their rip-roaring qualifying form to the final tournaments, especially in the knockout matches.
Blaming a manager for a team’s lacklustre results sounds like a cliche, but collapsing in high-stakes contests has become England’s habit under Southgate.
So it stands to reason he holds responsibility for the team’s barren run at major tournaments.
Hopefully, he can overcome that mental barrier next summer, as this England squad deserves a trophy.
They have the quality and the know-how, but it’s up to Southgate to find a way to make the most out of his star-studded squad.
Also See: England v Australia preview.
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