An England summer exit, or target the World Cup: What next for Gareth Southgate?

It did not feel at Wembley on Tuesday night as if we are entering the final phase of the Gareth Southgate era.

It felt more like this is a process which is still being endlessly worked on. One which does not just have one end-point in sight — at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on July 14, less than four months from now. But in fact has a further horizon, most likely East Rutherford, New Jersey on July 19, 2026, almost 10 years after Southgate first took the England job.

That may sound very distant right now, but an unavoidable question, or series of questions, has reared up over the course of this international break: will Euro 2024 be the last of Southgate’s four major tournaments in charge? Will he do enough to earn a new contract to take him through to the next World Cup? Would the English public support his continuance in the job? And, if not, would Southgate be tempted to jump ship into club football?

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Southgate watches on as England draw 2-2 with Belgium (Michael Regan – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

We did not get answers to all of these questions this month, but there were moments when Southgate provided some hints.

When Southgate announced his squad for this break here at Wembley he revealed that talks between himself and the Football Association over a new deal beyond this year have been shelved until after the Euros. Southgate even suggested fears of a possible backlash from England fans if he did sign a new deal before the tournament were part of his thinking.

Last Friday evening, before the Brazil game, Southgate was asked about his links with Manchester United. He did almost as much as he could to shut the talk down, saying he thought it was “completely disrespectful” to Erik Ten Hag and that he would not talk to a club while he was still England manager. Assuming there is no way he leaves this post until after the Euros, it is almost impossible to see how he takes a big club job in time for next season.

He does not look like he is about to ‘do a Julen Lopetegui’. (The Spain coach was sacked right at the start of Spain’s 2018 World Cup campaign when it emerged he had secretly agreed a deal to take over at Real Madrid at the end of the tournament.)

So nothing will be decided until after the Euros, one way or the other. And while there is some enthusiasm about a potential new deal, especially from the FA and the players, Southgate is also wary that the broader public do not necessarily feel the same way. Under-performance in Germany, any outcome short of the final stages, and it will be difficult to sell the merits of his staying on.

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Jude Bellingham scored England’s late equaliser (Crystal Pix/MB Media/Getty Images)

That might make people think that all of Southgate’s eggs are being placed in the German basket. Because if he senses that this is his last shot at winning a tournament with England — that he knows he is running out of time with the English football public, that he thinks he has five weeks in Germany to complete his legacy — then that might push him towards a certain short-term approach to decision making.

If he only needs to worry about the next four months, he might as well just stick with experienced players, known quantities, and go to Germany with the personnel he has taken to tournaments in the past.

But the evidence of this week is that is not what he intends.

Southgate has continued to experiment and try out new players, even this late in the day. All the attention will be on Kobbie Mainoo, the 18-year-old midfield sensation who made his first England start against Belgium and took to it instantly. Mainoo adds a lot to this squad already, and Southgate talked about his “ability to receive under pressure, ride challenges, and to manipulate the ball in tight areas”. But as good as he has been, it still might have been safer for England to go for someone with a bit more experience this time.

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Mainoo impressed on England debut (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Elsewhere Southgate gave debuts to Ezri Konsa and Anthony Gordon, ensuring he had a good look at both, as well as calling up Jarrad Branthwaite. There are plenty of more experienced options, particularly at centre-back, to whom he could have returned if he just wanted sure things for the Euros.

But when you look at these selections together, it does suggest Southgate might have an eye on the next cycle, from Berlin 2024 to New Jersey 2026, rather than seeing this summer as the great cut-off line.

Even listening to Southgate talking at Monday’s press conference about the importance of the emergence of the next generation of leaders, the players younger than Harry Kane, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker, you can see he has an eye on the future. It was Declan Rice who led England out at Wembley on Tuesday, but clearly the leadership qualities of Jude Bellingham are highly rated too, not least for the competitive mentality he showed in dragging England through to their added-time equaliser.

These long-term questions matter to Southgate: about the shape of the team down the line, about the group dynamics, the pathways and succession plans.

Maybe he is just being a selfless custodian, wanting to make sure the team is in a good place for whoever takes over if Germany is indeed his last tournament in charge. Or maybe he has a sense in his mind of what he wants the 2026 team to be, possibly even with Mainoo in midfield, and he wants to be there to see it.



The Briefing: England 2 Belgium 2: Toney and Mainoo shine – but where does this leave Southgate?

(Top photo: Alex Livesey – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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