AS a manager going into a massive week like the one Gareth Southgate is facing, the pressure is everywhere — and you have only one option.
You become a lonely animal. You don’t socialise, you don’t walk in the street, you don’t shop, you don’t read anything, you don’t watch television, you don’t put on the sports radio in the car.
You have two telephones. One, you switch off in these moments.
The one you keep on is just for your close circle of family and top friends, the ones who are not going to speak with you about football. Switch off the other phone, have no contact, and think for yourself.
A guy who is walking his dog will tell you, ‘Come on, pick this player’.
You go to the gas station and someone says, ‘Play this one, or the other one,’ and you think, ‘Leave me in peace’.
The national team is the perfect scenario because you are in a football bubble — I’m not even talking about Covid — you are together in the same hotel, you aren’t going out to restaurants or meeting people.
It’s the best environment to close the door on the outside world. Then, after the match, you have to face the world and you can be a genius or an idiot — that’s the power of football.
Gareth had the courage to do what he felt was best with his team selection against Germany and it paid off.
He is showing personality, a capacity to deal with all this pressure around the England team.
I think that pressure is only going to increase. Because the feeling now — and it’s my feeling too, I won’t hide it — is that England has to reach the final.
The national team is the club of everybody. Everybody cares. Everybody has an opinion.
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So now, in spite of Ukraine not being the strongest quarter-final opponents, the pressure is there and Gareth has to cope.
Sometimes it’s difficult, because you can know what is best for the team, but you also know you can be a target for critics.
If you are weak, if you are not 100 per cent sure, then you don’t go with your beliefs and you lose with the ideas of others and are criticised anyway. So it’s better to lose with your own ideas.
Imagine if Gareth reads and listens to my opinion and everyone else’s. Come on, the man would go crazy.
If Gareth makes changes against Ukraine and loses tonight, he’s going to be crucified. In this moment, not just criticised — but crucified.
I think he will rest some players and trust in his squad, which is strong.
One of the things I admire about Gareth is that there are good players who are not in the squad, because they are not good players to be on the bench.
I look at England and, for sure, there are some boys who aren’t happy they aren’t playing.
But you don’t see bad behaviour, bad faces, you don’t see the guy taking ten minutes to put on the shin pads, or just touching his socks when he warms up.
England don’t have that problem. It’s a healthy group and Gareth makes those decisions because he asks, he knows, has connections with club coaches.
This group was well-chosen. In a national team you need guys who — even if they don’t play a minute — they train well and push the others. Against Ukraine, I believe Gareth will find balance.
SHEVA IS SO CLEVER
I WORKED with Ukraine’s head coach Andriy Shevchenko when he was a player at Chelsea and he is a calm guy, with emotional balance.
Sheva is a golf player. I don’t believe he shouts or gets angry. He will be the guy to calm them down, give them trust.
He will not just give his players the benefit of his experience, but also his status as the biggest player ever in Ukraine.
So he will be fully respected by the young boys in his squad.
He will say, ‘OK, we don’t have the same status as the England players but we have to do it this way’.
I see Sheva like an older brother or a young teacher to those players — simple but organised.
He is perfect for a national team job, where your relationship with the players is different to a club.
I think England will beat Ukraine but Sheva will not make it easy for them.
He’s not going to risk Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice together — they are both on one booking and could be suspended for the semi-final.
He may rest Harry Maguire, who is also on a booking, but Tyrone Mings has played well.
In this game there is no reason to go with a back five. Against Sweden, Ukraine were playing against ten men and they had five players on the halfway line.
They won — but they didn’t really go for it. They will be very respectful to England.
They will be really defensive and try to counter-attack. Against the Germans, you needed to be very organised.
Against Ukraine you need to disorganise them, create chaos, create superiorities and to win individual duels. Jack Grealish is the best at that, so I’d start him.
I don’t believe England will become complacent.
They know this is the best opportunity they will ever get — to play Ukraine, then a semi-final at Wembley against Denmark or the Czech Republic.
I think they have the right mentality — and a coach with the courage to make the unpopular decisions.
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When a coach gets results, he is surrounded by supporters. But when his decisions don’t get results, he is a lonely man.
And in the moment of your decisions, even with your close circle of assistants and analysts, you are a lonely man.
If you get the result, you are amazing, you are very popular and everyone shares your opinion.
But you have to make those tough decisions — and Gareth is making the right ones.
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