In the world of football anything is possible, and ruling out Gareth Southgate to manage Manchester United in a world where David Moyes has managed them would be quite a brave position. That said, it is worthwhile to assess the merits of this question before disregarding it completely (even if I did tell someone to put the beer down on the floor and move away slowly a couple of days ago for suggesting it). So I will try and present a balanced view of the pros and cons to the Southgate to United argument, using the fundamental elements we expect of any Manchester United manager (David Moyes excepted).
Faith in young players
While England managers in the recent past (Roy Hodgson) have given the excuse that “we are using this tournament to play youth and prepare for the next one”, that was always more lip service to take the pressure off his own back rather than having any basis in reality. Players like Rooney, Gerrard, Milner, Lampard, and Lambert (YES RICKIE LAMBERT) were part of his tournament squads. Southgate has made a complete commitment to youth… even his only 30+ year old player is named Young so he doesn’t count! He is absolutely getting the best out of Jesse Lingard, and while Marcus Rashford isn’t starting every game, when he does play he inevitably performs. Other youngsters like Loftus-Cheek and John Stones have also looked very good in his team, perhaps even better than they do for their clubs. All the while he hasn’t used youth as a crutch, with all sounds coming out of the England camp being of wanting to WIN the tournament, which brings us to…
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Has he ever won anything either as a player or a manager? Nope. So it would seem paradoxical that I have included having a winning mentality here, but maybe (and maybe I’m stretching here) it is precisely that lack of success which is a driving force. For the first time in my living memory the expectations of the English media and the England camp are flipped. Usually the media have the expectation of the squad winning tournaments with the camp seeing a semi-final as success. This time the media and even the general public have almost zero expectation of success, whereas the players are making statements like those made by Marcus Rashford. Not easy sound bites like ‘we want to win the world cup’ or ‘we are England we have to win it’, but where winning is an underlying theme of any discussion. When asked if he is frustrated at not playing he responds “You need the squad to win the tournament and that’s what we’re here to try and do” which shows winning is part of their unconscious. Southgate, winner or not, has installed this positive, winning mentality into his players.
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For all the talk about winning mentality, actually winning things matters. That’s what a club like United are built on. To put it into context, the past five years have been the worst in our modern history, yet we’ve still managed to win an FA Cup, EFL Cup and the Europa League. That said, there is no trophy bigger than the World Cup, and if Southgate can win it then that could almost void the argument, especially if he wins it with a serial loser like England! I say it could almost void the argument, because there is a huge difference between tournament football and a league campaign. Tournaments can also be won on luck. Take Denmark in 1992 who didn’t even qualify for the Euros but found themselves lifting the trophy, or 250/1 outsiders Greece in 2004.
A perfect storm of events can cause a surprise tournament win, but in a league campaign there are no hiding places. One good month in a nine month season means next to nothing, and with United fans starving for Premier League success, hiring Gareth Southgate on the back of a World Cup win would still be a monumental gamble.
Gareth Southgate has England playing some modestly attractive football, but he employs a 3-5-2 system. A system which does not reflect the traditions of Manchester United. United football has always been about wing play, with wingers and fullbacks terrorising defences and whipping crosses in. You could argue that the current United system under Jose is failing in this too, but I would argue it is about personnel rather than formation. Switching to a 3-5-2 could make for some interesting and improved performances, and you can win the Premier League with it as Chelsea have shown, but I would still rather stick to a back four. Tradition is important at a club like ours, and there is only so long the United faithful would settle for playing five defenders.