Let’s clear one thing up nice and early: Gareth Southgate should not be Chelsea manager. Even in the wake of his selection of Callum Hudson-Odoi, any notion that he’s a realistic candidate to lead the Blues at any point in the future shouldn’t be treated seriously, regardless of what social media is saying.
What he’s doing with England, however, is something that Chelsea and many other clubs could do well to learn from. The art of bringing together several pieces of a puzzle that has remained incomplete for decades, and unifying not just a team but a fervent fan base, is not an easy one yet England and their supporters are having fun for the first time in a long time. They’re good. And it all starts with a plan.
If your vision is clear, and your objectives are well-defined and clearly measurable, there can be no doubt about what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. The manager is no longer the silver bullet; he or she carries out the plan alongside a strong support staff, and with the full trust of the players. Everyone has a purpose. This, more than anything, is why Southgate is the right manager for England at this moment in time.
To provide a little background, he was the FA’s Head of Elite Development in 2011-12, and played a part in developing the ethos that ultimately became ‘England DNA’ a year after he took charge of the Under-21s. Far from flawless in the dugout, had to learn on the job, but he did so with a group of players he had been involved with from their very formative years, and those same players now make up the heart of a squad that recorded England’s best World Cup performance in thirty years last summer and that is already second-favourites to win Euro 2020.
Critics will perhaps note that England didn’t beat anyone of note en route to the Semi Finals in Russia, and they would have a point; it might, one argues, be roughly comparable to Chelsea’s path to this season’s Europa League Quarter Finals. You can only beat who’s put in front of you, but there’s more to this England team than the World Cup. They’ve won in Spain and looked brilliant in doing so. They’re undefeated against Germany, Italy and Brazil, and ran future World Champions France close in their own back yard.
They’re Nations League Finalists and favourites to win the inaugural version of the competition this summer, they’ve cultivated an atmosphere that hasn’t existed among the squad in years, and they have a depth of talent that might genuinely be the envy of every country in Europe. That’s in no small part due to a desire to get the best youngsters involved early and often; Friday’s win over the Czech Republic was the first time the Three Lions have had two 18 year-olds on the pitch at the same time in well over one hundred years, and they were there on merit.
What does this all have to do with Chelsea, though? It’s certainly easier to implement some of this at international level, without the hectic day-to-day demands of club management, and England haven’t actually won anything yet. There are lessons to take away and build upon though; timeless factors that lead to success wherever you are and whatever level you’re playing at.
There is no transfer market in international football. You cannot buy your way to your destination so it pays to have a defined approach. If Chelsea can’t or won’t compete financially with Manchester City, PSG, Barcelona, Real Madrid and the rest of Europe’s elite, they need a strategy running through the club that pushes them in the direction of success a different way. The so-called ‘CV Managers’ have brought short-term success but that has come at a price; juxtaposed with alarming discord in the wake of Premier League title-winning campaigns, the club is now as fractured as it has been in the Roman Abramovich era.
More than a tactician, more than a style, it needs a rallying point and someone who unquestionably defines Chelsea. That doesn’t mean they have to have been at the club before but, importantly, they have to understand what the club has been, where it has come from, and what it needs to be moving forward. It might not even need to be a manager; a Sporting Director with the remit to run the club in a proper manner again would be a start. Ask yourself what Chelsea stand for in 2019. What defines them? What do they want to be and how are they going to get there? Who are Chelsea?
Southgate’s real value has been the manner in which he’s been able to disarm his critics, get the media on his side, and lean on his considerable experience in development football to get his players to warm to what he’s doing – all areas in which Chelsea have continued to meet resistance. Players want to play for England again and, let it be said, play for a manager who is thoroughly prepared and puts his team in advantageous positions. England now have a veritable army of burgeoning young footballers just waiting for their chance to shine, and the senior squad has a manager who has made it very clear that he’s prepared to call on them. No club has provided more players to the younger age groups at St George’s Park than the Blues; in 2017 Southgate said “the success of our junior teams (owes) a big debt to what Neil Bath has done at Chelsea.” It feels like their work is more valued by the FA than it is by Chelsea themselves.
Even those who no longer ply their trade at Cobham are making their mark; Declan Rice’s switch from Ireland to England saw him join Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ryan Bertrand, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham and Jack Cork in earning call-ups in the last eighteen months. What if Chelsea found their own Southgate? Someone who’s worked with an academy that could save them millions in a transfer market they’re likely to soon be banned from in any event, has perhaps gone away and broadened their horizons, and returned willing and ready to put a broken club back together again?
Because, make no mistake about it, this is a club that needs it. The slow decline since the demise of the team that Jose Mourinho built arguably started in the wake of the Champions League win in 2012 and is yet to be arrested. Unrest in the stands has extended to flagrant criticism of Maurizio Sarri and some of his players, and more recently it has given way to something even worse: apathy. Several long-term season-ticket holders have spoken of distressing fact that they simply don’t care any more and, as the divide between match-going fans and Chelsea’s worldwide support yawns ever wider, the atmosphere around the club grows more toxic by the week.
Yes, Southgate’s England haven’t won a thing yet, but ask yourself this; who looks the more likely to experience good times in the next ten years? Who knows where they’re going and how to get there? Who has a plan? Who ‘gets it’?
These are all questions Abramovich must ask himself. Times have undeniably been hard for him, but he bears the responsibility to ensure his club remains competitive and challenges for major honours, not Europe’s consolation prizes, and repositions itself at the top of the world game. It’s time for him to return to the picture and make a statement that takes the team into the 2020s – and a third decade of ownership – with a brighter future than it has now. And, who knows, the Stamford Bridge faithful might even find an Atomic Kitten song to serenade him with if he’s lucky…