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Gareth Southgate’s critics may scoff but Manchester United move makes sense

Gareth Southgate’s critics may scoff but Manchester United move makes sense

Gareth Southgate is used to managing big players in high-pressure environments – Getty Images/Robbie Jay Barratt

Rewind to 2016 when Gareth Southgate took charge of what was a broken institution amid a toxic environment and you will find one of the reasons why Manchester United will consider him as a successor to Erik ten Hag if the Old Trafford club decide to sack the Dutchman.

England were so low, coming off the back of their Euros humiliation by Iceland, that even Southgate was initially in two minds over whether he wanted the top job almost eight years ago.

United 2024 is not so dissimilar to England 2016, with a realignment of culture and environment just as important as the rebuild of the squad that is so obviously needed.

Central to the England transformation was Dan Ashworth, who will soon become sporting director at United under Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the new minority shareholder in charge of football operations. In his former role as Football Association technical director, Ashworth was well aware of Southgate’s strengths long before the rest of us, having worked closely with him during his time as coach of England Under-21s.

Ashworth, perhaps because of the posts he has held at West Bromwich Albion, England, Brighton and Newcastle United, has never appointed a so-called trophy manager so it is not hard to understand why United’s next man will not be picked solely on silverware.

Sources point to the fact he has hired Southgate and Graham Potter, and worked successfully with Eddie Howe, who are all considered similarly collaborative characters.

The case against Southgate becoming the next Manchester United is easy enough for his critics to make, but scratch beneath the surface and the case in his favour is perhaps bigger and more compelling than many appreciate.

Nobody can argue with the fact that Southgate has never won a trophy as a manager, experienced relegation in his only other club job at Middlesbrough and has, at times, been held back by in-game conservatism.

But the pressure on England at each major tournament is perfectly comparable to the conditions a United manager works under with every decision scrutinised, each selection and performance endlessly debated and a failure to win treated as a disaster.

He has proven he will not shirk big decisions

Southgate has proven himself one of the best communicators, internally and externally, in the game and has been able to unite a nation and his squad. That is relevant, given that some of the doubts around Ten Hag centre around his ability to motivate and a perceived lack of empathy.

But he is much more than just a guy who could talk a good game and bring back some of the feel-good factor inside Old Trafford. With England, Southgate eased out Wayne Rooney without controversy or chaos, dropped Kyle Walker for a period of time and moved on from Raheem Sterling.

He has proven he will not shirk big decisions and there may be another one coming with England over Marcus Rashford, whose performances for United this season have attracted plenty of scrutiny.

Southgate may not be ready-made for United, but what other options do United have if they make a change? Potter would be a similar style of appointment and ticks many of the same boxes, while Thomas Tuchel has a greater club pedigree having won the Champions League with Chelsea.

Liverpool have taken a huge gamble on Arne Slot to succeed Jurgen Klopp and yet the appointment of the Dutchman has been received positively.

Slot has none of Southgate’s experience of managing big players and big egos in big-pressure environments. Neither do the likes of Ruben Amorim or Thiago Motta at Sporting and Bologna, which means Ashworth may well eventually, just as he did in 2016, decide that Southgate is the “outstanding candidate” – regardless of what those who like to judge their managers against their trophies might think.

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