Gareth Southgate fired the starting gun on another campaign with England at St George’s Park yesterday in a pair of drainpipe trousers and natty black and white basketball sneakers. ‘Drip’ – as one of his players described the look in urban slang – which the England manager took, uncertainly, to be a compliment.
For a conservative 52-year-old best known for his M and S waistcoat, perhaps the fashion rebrand was a subconscious move to stay relevant as he announced his squad for the start of the Euro 2024 qualifiers. This, after all, is his seventh year in the role. The deep soul-searching Southgate went through after Qatar and England’s quarterfinal exit to France over whether to stay on is behind him.
He is refreshed, rebooted and ready to go again, with Italy first up on Thursday in Naples, in search of that elusive major trophy. “Post-tournament, I think it’s always right just to give yourself a bit of time because every tournament I’ve been to I’ve felt differently about things a week or two weeks after,” said Southgate.
“I enjoyed the experience of the World Cup, I was pleased with the way we played. But we know there is still a step for us to take. Of course now we have to start from scratch again. We have to have the humility to park that. Yes, we want to be European champions and we’ve had a lot of experiences that could help us to get there but as our opponents next week found, you can very quickly be in trouble qualifying. We’ve got to respect the challenge that qualifying holds for us.’
Italy’s absence from Qatar, after winning the Euros, was a spectacular fall from grace but their presence in a group which also includes Ukraine who visit Wembley a week on Sunday is a robust start for Southgate in what will be his fourth major tournament in charge.
Would he have continued if he did not think this England squad had it in them to win the title in Germany in 16 months’ time? “I don’t know. But I do think we can. That’s the challenge,” he said. “I don’t think the players need any more evidence of what’s possible. They have played basically in the biggest games in world football bar one. They’ve had results against most of the top teams – but we’ve got to do that more consistently.
“The scenario of going to Italy, where we haven’t won for decades is a classic of the type of game that we’ve got to start winning. If we are looking for the next step to take as a team, that is it.”
While the call-up for Ivan Toney was the headline act of yesterday’s selection, the return of Chelsea full-backs Reece James and Ben Chilwell – after missing the World Cup through injury – was also noteworthy. Significantly so for Trent Alexander-Arnold who has been bumped out of the squad by James’s inclusion alongside that of Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier.
“We have got a ridiculous number of right-backs. There is huge competition for places. And yeah, at this moment in time, we see others ahead of Trent [Alexander-Arnold],” he said.
Southgate has predictably stayed loyal to Harry Maguire, who has started only ten games all season for Manchester United and more surprisingly Kalvin Phillips, who has started just two for Manchester City since his arrival last summer.
“To get in Man City’s team is much harder than to get into other teams and he’s still adapting to the way they play as well,” said Southgate. “Is it perfect that he’s not getting as many minutes as we’d like? No, it absolutely isn’t. But we still think he’s the best option to try and help us win these games.”