Long-term planning can be criticised in an industry based on short-termism. The Football Association announced their intention to tie Gareth Southgate down until the end of the 2024 World Cup before their destiny in Euro 2020 was decided. It was committing to a manager for four tournaments when he had completed one, albeit successfully, and was midway through the second.
England were willing to mortgage their future and make him their longest-serving manager since Bobby Robson. If it reflected the reality that international management does not appeal to many of the elite coaches and that there has long been a shortage of high-class English options, it also showed that Southgate’s off-field leadership has been outstanding. He has been an excellent spokesman, a role model and a thinker. The remaining questions are if he is an elite manager.
Tuesday could offer some answers. Southgate smashed through one national glass ceiling when he took England to a first World Cup semi-final for 28 years in 2018. He could break through others.
England have never won a knockout tie in the European Championships in 90 minutes; their only triumph, courtesy of a side including Southgate against Spain in 1996, was on penalties.
As others like Portugal and the Netherlands have fallen by the wayside, as the draw has opened up, with Sweden or Ukraine beckoning in the quarter-finals, Denmark or the Czech Republic in the semi-finals, there is the chance for another historic achievement. Or, in the tradition of England-Germany games, an opportunity to lament about what might have been while age-old foes progressed further.
Southgate finds himself more reliant on results for vindication. Pragmatists are. England are the only team who have not conceded in Euro 2020 but no one qualified for the last 16 with as few goals.
Southgate took the conscious decision to adopt a pragmatic approach. England boast an enviable collection of attacking full-backs, but they have rarely attacked. Kalvin Phillips played a progressive role against Croatia but since then he and Declan Rice have felt twin defensive midfielders. Excitement has been rationed, particularly in second halves.
Rewind to 2019 and England were cavaliers. Their total of 38 international goals was the highest in a calendar year in their history. But amnesia set in during the nine-month break from international football.
Too many observers forgot about their free-scoring antics. Southgate went on the defensive in 2020, selecting a back five, looking for the solidity that tournament winners often exhibit. Criticism followed.
Exit Euro 2020 without excelling as an attacking force and far more will follow. England’s generation of young talent has given Southgate options he did not have in 2018. Some of his doubters have had a point; others have been inconsistent and incoherent, faulting him for not picking whoever is on the bench.
Jadon Sancho is a current cause celebre. Jack Grealish has been one and may be again. Yet many, Jose Mourinho among them, would not have picked Raheem Sterling at the start of the tournament and he has scored both of England's goals. Few expected Bukayo Saka to start against the Czech Republic but he was the man of the match.
Now decisions beckon: Phil Foden or Saka, whether to recall Mason Mount, potentially at Grealish’s expense, when he emerges from self-isolation, if he reverts to five at the back. Tournaments will be judged on them; so, too, if Southgate can alter games with his substitutes in a way he did not in 2018. Perhaps the climate has changed since then. Perhaps, with Wembley at its fullest for 15 months, it will echo to the 2018 anthem “Southgate, you’re the one.” The FA think so. A defining win now would help prove their case.