After England’s dramatic penalty triumph over Colombia, I – along with millions of others – began to believe it was really possible. With just Sweden standing between England and the semi-finals of the World Cup, the country has a better chance now of becoming world champions than it has for several decades. Gareth Southgate must obviously take a huge portion of the credit for the turnaround since recent debacles on the world stage, but this England side has been influenced by a multitude of managers in tangible ways. And no, I don’t mean Sam Allardyce.
Before I begin exploring the influence of other managers, it is important to acknowledge the importance of England’s newest cult hero. Gareth Southgate was a somewhat underwhelming appointment to many he was unveiled to replace Sam Allardyce, having come from England’s under 21 side with limited success in top level club football. However, he has managed to win over almost the entire nation with his likeable personality, passion and, of course, winning football. Southgate has been responsible for major innovations on the pitch such as using Kyle Walker on the right of a back three rather than as a wing-back, something which was greeted with ridicule at first but has quickly been proved an inspired decision. Southgate’s choice to earmark Jordan Pickford as his number one, and then stick by him when he has come under scrutiny, has also been vindicated by the Everton man’s heroics in both extra time and the penalty shootout against Colombia. However, the most important change Southgate has made to his England setup is the friendly attitude he has brought with him. His openness in making all players available to speak to the media and allowing journalists into training sessions may have caused short term problems such as the leaking of a possible team sheet (which didn’t end up being correct), but it has got the media behind the team. This is something which sets Southgate apart from his predecessors, as the hostile relationship with the media contributed to some of the criticism of the players during the Capello and Hodgson campaigns. Gareth Southgate will undoubtedly be the hero if England can continue their success. But he is not the only one who has helped shape this team.
One of the most surprising changes in Southgate’s time at the helm has been his choice to employ a 3-5-2 formation. One might think that, for a team blessed with an abundance of creative midfielders such as Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, it would be counterproductive to use a system without genuine wingers. However, under closer inspection the decision starts to make more sense. Perhaps Southgate’s decision has a whiff of Pep Guardiola about it; trusting a single holding midfielder to play alongside two more creative players, thus allowing Lingard and Alli to feature in a team together. Manchester City have been using this idea for much of the season, with the defensive presence of Fernandinho allowing the less defensively-minded David Silva to feature alongside him in central midfield. Jordan Henderson is the man Southgate has entrusted as the sole central midfielder, and as the tournament has progressed he has played more and more like the Brazilian. The other manager who has had an influence on England’s tactics is Antonio Conte. Although the Italian looks to be on his way out of Chelsea, his 3-4-3 system which saw the Blues stroll to the Premier League title in 2016-17 has given the England boss confidence to employ a three at the back formation. César Azpilicueta’s excellence since being converted into a centre-half may even have been part of Southgate’s inspiration when making a similar move with Kyle Walker. Southgate’s system has proved to be a masterstroke so far, but without the influence of other managers it is unlikely the key tactical decisions would ever have been made.
Mauricio Pochettino has also had more than his fair share of influence on this England side, with no fewer than five of the 23 man squad playing for his Tottenham team. From the starting eleven against Colombia Kieran Trippier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane all play for Spurs, while Danny Rose came on in extra time and Eric Dier scored the winning penalty for the Three Lions. Pochettino’s influence reaches further than simply being the club manager of more than 20% of the squad: with the exception of Rose he has been responsible for a large part in the development of each of the above players. Kane has been turned into a world class striker under his management, while the Argentinian gave Eric Dier his first team breakthrough and plucked Trippier and Alli from the relative obscurity of Burnley and MK Dons respectively. It is no wonder that Pochettino is constantly being linked with the biggest jobs in football when his record of player development is so impressive. It is difficult to imagine how the England squad would look without the five Spurs players who have been taken under the wing of Pochettino and developed into an integral part of Southgate’s group.
In terms of player development, it is impossible to ignore the influence of José Mourinho. Despite his reputation as a manager who ends the careers of young players rather than furthering them, he must be given credit where it is due. A couple of years ago it would have been laughable that Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard would be in the England squad for the World Cup; now they are both mainstays in the starting eleven. Lingard is a player whose career has undoubtedly come on leaps and bounds under Mourinho, developing from an inconsistent, if skilled, midfielder into a selection headache for Southgate trying to fit him into the same team as Alli and Raheem Sterling. The United academy product failed to make the squad for Euro 2016, but it would now be unthinkable for him to be out of the starting eleven. Young has also had his career rejuvenated under Mourinho. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had forgotten he was still at Old Trafford when he broke back into contention for a starting spot, but by the end of the season he was a starter for the Red Devils. Young was England’s best hope at the top end of the pitch during Euro 2012, but thanks to Mourinho is now starting on the left side of the defence. Mourinho has reshaped the ex-Watford man into a left-back, and it is this which gave him any possibility of making the World Cup squad, let alone winning a starting berth. Though many still question whether the right-footed Young is a better option down the left than Danny Rose, Mourinho deserves credit for making it a question in the first place.
Gareth Southgate is the main man behind the England squad but his project has been influenced by managers from around the world. The effect of managers from Argentina, Spain, Portugal and Italy can be seen in the current squad, and they are only a few of thousands who will have shaped Southgate’s philosophy over the years. Football may well be coming home, but it is a global effort.