Gareth Southgate is not a man to set pulses racing.
As a player, he dealt in understated excellence.
Beyond his defining semi-final penalty miss on home soil at Euro 1996 and subsequent pizza advert, the casual observer would fail to recall anything of note from a respectable 57-cap England career.
The versatile centre-back’s acerbic putdown of Sven-Goran Eriksson – the manager who wasted a ‘Golden Generation’ – and a member of the British ruling class in the wake of World Cup 2002’s quarter-final surrender to Brazil currently stands as his enduring gift to the game. Few political hacks ever scribe a killer line to match: “We were expecting Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan-Smith.”
It is no great surprise to learn that Southgate has been in the Swede’s shoes for more than a year and we’ve not heard anything that matches the greatest orator his nation has ever known.
In defence, landlocked Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod at Russia’s World Cup 2018 do not provide the same opportunities for a “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech as the previous edition in Brazil’s tropical paradise.
And yet, the now 47-year-old who relegated Middlesbrough in 2008/09 and led England’s Under-21 to last place in their group at the 2015 European Championships has done something his celebrated ex-boss comprehensively failed to do during the previous decade.
Through a frank assessment of England’s few strengths and many weaknesses, he appears to have constructed a lucid tactical plan. This is a rare gift for men in his position – as contemporaries such as Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson can all attest.
For once this summer, the national side should exceed expectations set at record lows rather than shrink under unrealistic ones.
The 3-5-2 formation utilised once again on Friday night earned a deserved first victory in the Netherlands since 1969. Manchester United bolter Jesse Lingard’s precise finish from the edge of the penalty box extended England’s unbeaten run to seven games and made it five-consecutive clean sheets for the first time since October 2014.
Southgate is aware his centre midfield cannot match the shimmering quality of the globe’s grandees. For all that Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson acquitted himself well at Amsterdam ArenA, he is no Toni Kroos, N’Golo Kante, Thiago Alcantara or Casemiro.
Neither would two centre-backs selected from a middling bunch that contains – if all available – the likes of Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Joe Gomez and the out-of-form John Stones provide adequate protection when faced with Belgium’s galaxy of shimmering attackers in Group G this June. An extra body is a necessity.
What they do have – when fit – is arguably the sport’s standout striker in Harry Kane, his partner-in-crime from Tottenham of Dele Alli plus fleet-footed forwards such as Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford who can wound any side on the counter-attack.
Pace seems to be a key facet for Southgate. Kyle Walker has a claim to be among the top-three right-backs on the planet, but he found himself as one of three centre-backs against the sorry Dutch.
Starts were also granted to Tottenham full-backs Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain buzzed around Liverpool club-mate Henderson in midfield and further legs were supplied by the effervescent Lingard.
England’s Jesse Lingard scores the solitary goal against the Netherlands.
The days seem over of simply cramming all your best players onto the pitch with no regard for a coherent system.
In this regard, the Netherlands were apt opponents. Severe injury to Roma centre midfielder Kevin Strootman – who looked a shadow of the animal he once was this weekend – and worries about a porous rearguard forced Louis van Gaal to forgo decades of adherence to Johan Cruyff’s 4-3-3 ‘totaalvoetbal’ principles and select a 3-5-2 four years ago.
His reward was an evisceration of holders Spain and an unlikely run to the semi-finals.
And let’s not forget Sir Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’ eschewed the predatory Jimmy Greaves and delivered ultimate glory at World Cup 1966.
The Three Lions don’t have their roar back. Perhaps, they never will.
But under Southgate, they can proceed with quiet confidence that better days lie ahead after miserable returns at the last three tournaments.