Gareth Southgate plans meticulously in bid to avoid penalty woe
England were on fire in a tournament playing out in a sweltering hot summer on their own shores, but all that came to an end when Southgate stepped up, took a long run-up and went low to the left. He wasn’t even supposed to take one, but, believing it was the right thing to do, threw himself into the pressure cooker, unaware that within minutes he would be badly burnt.
Penalties are powerful entities – they are kingmakers and career ruiners; they can create heroes and crush confidence. Southgate rode out his penalty miss in the only way he knows how; in a self-deprecating humour. A few months later, he agreed to appear in a Pizza Hut advert alongside penalty missers Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle repeatedly saying “miss” at Southgate, who is wearing a paper bag on his head, lifting it slightly to eat a slice of pan pizza. Classic Southgate.
“I have had a couple of decades thinking it through,” Southgate said when focus turned from the group stage to a last-16 knockout against Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday.
“In defence of the staff there at the time, penalty shoot-outs weren’t as regular then. The depth of knowledge and understanding, we didn’t have as much information as we do now. FA Cup ties went to two or three replays so we weren’t in those situations as often as we are now.”
There are few international managers who have ever missed such an important penalty, few who fully understand the pain of the aftermath. There is probably no England manager who has more experience at missing high-profile penalties. It is why Southgate will not leave to chance a skill he believes can, contrary to some opinion, be mastered.
There is a tendency to explain away England’s failure at them as lacking in luck, but Southgate has made it clear that is no excuse. Penalties are, he says, a set skill performed under huge pressure, that can be learned and conquered.
Each individual of the 23-man squad has their own level and understanding of the art. Captain Harry Kane is an expert, and buried two confidently against Panama in England’s second Group G match. For others, Southgate will ensure more attention to detail.
“There are the players that take them regularly and have their own routine and are able to maybe change decision depending on the goalkeeper and others who maybe don’t take them as regularly who need to probably practise one or two stock penalties that they are able to execute at that moment,” Southgate said.
“That’s what we have tried to do, to deduce what group they are in and is there a need for individual technique. Some we shouldn’t be interfering, others we are giving them a process which we believe will help them.”
There is nothing to fear, but fear itself, said Franklin D Roosevelt in his first inaugural address. And that is the fear around penalties: players love kicking footballs, they love shooting, they will take penalties in training until they’re dragged from the field, but when it comes to the knockout phase of a major competition, they fear the fear of taking one. If anyone wants to know what missing feels like on such an occasion, they only have to knock on Southgate’s door.
The manager believes it takes more cajones, to borrow a phrase from Watford striker Troy Deeney, to admit to the group at crunch time that you are not ready to take one.
Maybe it is something he wished he had done in 1996. “The type of character I was, I felt you should put yourself forward,” he said. “It is probably braver not to if you are not confident doing it. We will have a more considered list of who has been finishing in training, what the numbers should be unless they are injured. If we have made changes, we keep updating the list.”
England’s thoroughness in preparation means teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold, the youngest player in the squad, would not be afraid to take one. “If I’m on the pitch and if I’ve proved myself in training then I’m sure the lads and the manager might make me,” he said.
History is against England’s players. England simply aren’t very good in knockout matches and penalties are a big part of that.
“There’ve been many different reasons for not getting over the line,” Southgate said. “Some disciplinary, some have been penalty shoot-outs. But more often than not we have not been able to win those matches in normal time or in extra-time.”
Southgate basically took a bullet for his player with his squad selection against Belgium on Thursday: making eight changes and resting key players. Lose against Colombia and he will take a kicking. A brave call.
“That is the least of my concerns,” Southgate said. “The most important thing for me is the players are in the best physical condition for the game. I don’t think mentally we lose anything because they know we’ve made changes and they know Belgium weren’t their full team as well.
“So, we’re in to big matches where margins will be fine and judgment on me will be extremely harsh. That’s why we’re here. We want to be in those games. I wasn’t so comfortable with the love-in [before the Belgium game], to be honest, so nice that there’s a little bit of an edge back.”
Southgate has stepped up to the edge and tumbled down it, it is where he belongs.