KALININGRAD, Russia (AP) — Watching the Super Bowl in February, Gareth Southgate didn’t pretend to know much about the game. It wasn’t a jaunt, either.
While seeming a little out of place and bemused during stops in British broadcast booths, the coach of England’s national soccer team made clear he was in in Minnesota for a very specific task.
Southgate was fascinated watching the interactions between the coaches, the plays called and the defensive and offensive strategies being employed.
Fast-forward a few months and intelligence gathered on that fact-minding mission to the United States played a small part in influencing preparations for the World Cup, where England is already looking ahead to the knockout phase.
Having unexpectedly gained one of the biggest jobs in soccer in 2016, Southgate has made up for his inexperience coaching top-level teams by broadening his horizons and being more open to new ideas than stuck-in-their-ways predecessors Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson.
“You are always looking to learn and improve whether that’s from business, whether it’s from sport when you’re in a leadership position, in a management position,” Southgate said Wednesday. “There are fantastic examples out there and experiences to take on board. I always want to do that.”
Six of England’s eight goals in two games in Russia so far have come from set pieces. It’s no accident. The recruitment of Allan Russell, who keenly studies gridiron moves and describes himself as “the world’s No. 1 striker-specific coach,” has been attributed to Southgate’s desire to make the most of set plays like in the NFL and NBA.
“We’d identified (set pieces) as key in tournaments and an element we felt we could improve upon,” Southgate said, reflecting on the 6-1 rout of Panama on Sunday that featured a goal from a corner, another from a free kick and two penalties. “No matter how much you control the play at both ends, set plays are really important.”
The very public demonstration of a discovery from the Super Bowl trip put into practice by Southgate was England putting all 23 players up for media interviews during a single, rapid session before flying to Russia.
That squad, which is supported in Russia by 35 staff, has now qualified from its World Cup group with a game to spare. It’s a noteworthy achievement given the struggles at the last two World Cups, including Brazil in 2014 where Hodgson’s England failed to win a single game.
“The reason we’re doing well is because we have an outstanding support team and an outstanding group of players in terms of their hunger and desire to improve and their willingness to try anything, to try different things, to embrace new ideas,” Southgate said ahead of Thursday’s game against Belgium.
The 47-year-old Southgate’s only job in club management was at Middlesbrough from 2006 to 2009. After a spell in broadcasting, Southgate was hired to coach England’s under-21 team in 2013 and was well-placed to be promoted to the senior job three years later when Sam Allardyce was fired after one game in charge for unguarded comments to undercover reporters.
“Managing a team now is a very complex scenario in terms of the dynamics of the team and allowing everybody to have their input,” Southgate said. “But it’s also making sure that there’s space for the players to breathe and you’ve got to manage 50-60 people. In American sports their head coaches have to deal with a lot of that dynamic, which is always fascinating.”
Southgate has also tapped into insight from the New Zealand rugby team and is working alongside coaches from sports including boxing, athletics, cycling and swimming as part of a program run by the UK Sport agency.
The need to constantly evolve as a coach and be open to new thinking was underscored on Wednesday by defending champion Germany being eliminated from the World Cup in the first round for the first time since 1938 just as Southgate was discussing the Belgium game.
“There really is no opportunity to rest on where you are as a team or stop the constant improvement,” Southgate said. “We’ve learned an enormous amount from studying Germany as a team. We learned a lot watching them last summer (in the Confederations Cup) that we’ve actually implemented some of that, and their team that won the World Cup we studied very intently.
“So indirectly I would say they’ve had a big bearing on what we’re doing now, but in sport and in life you’ve got to keep evolving and improving. It just shows anybody is vulnerable on any given day.”
Germany’s early exit ensures Southgate will not have to face the team responsible for his most mortifying moment while an England player: losing the 1996 European Championship semifinal after missing a penalty in the shootout.
“It’s been unusual to see them struggle as much as they have,” Southgate said, containing any glee.
All that’s left to resolve for the English in Group G is whether they retain the top spot ahead of Belgium, which determines who they play in the round of 16 and beyond.
Rob Harris is at https://twitter.com/RobHarris and https://facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
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