MADRID, Nov. 9 (Xinhua) -- Gareth Southgate leads England into their third major tournament under his tutelage in Qatar and the question mark is whether it will be third time lucky for the coach, who took them to the semifinals in Russia 2018 and to the final of the European Championship last summer.
As a player, the 52-year-old had an excellent club career with Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough and despite never playing for one of England's biggest clubs, he earned a reputation as one of the smartest defenders.
Maybe the fact that Southgate began his career in midfield and only switched to playing in defense when he joined Aston Villa, helped to give him a wider perspective of the game, allowing him to win possession as much by anticipation than by pace or power.
His penalty miss in the semifinals of Euro 1996 is probably still etched in the mind of many England fans, but Southgate recovered from that and made a total of 57 international caps.
When the time came for him to hang up his boots, he made the challenging transition from Middlesbrough's captain to the first team coach, moving from the locker room to the coach's office essentially overnight and going from teammate to boss.
It was a difficult time for the club, which was undergoing a rebuilding process under financial limitations and after finishing 12th in his first season in charge, 'Boro' only just avoided the drop in his second season, before seeing a good start slip away and end in relegation and the sack at the end of 2009.
Most coaches in his situation would have looked to get straight back into management, but Southgate went into TV punditry as the expert commentator for the Independent Television (ITV).
He also got into the England setup in 2011, when he was appointed head of elite development, before replacing Stuart Pearce as the England Under-21 coach in 2013.
That period saw him work with players such as John Stones, Harry Kane and James Ward-Prowse, who remain part of the England squad, and it also laid the foundations for him to show faith in youth when he finally became the national team coach.
Southgate initially said he didn't want to replace Roy Hodgson after England's debacle in the 2016 European Championship, but after Sam Allardyce had to leave the job after just one game in charge after a newspaper 'sting' operation, he was made temporary coach and the results of his four games in charge saw him finally take the step up.
Hopes were not high for the 2018 World Cup and a look at the England squad for that tournament shows they had a solid starting 11, but with an important difference in talent between 'starters' and 'substitutes'.
Southgate adapted to the circumstances and used a system with three central defenders (turning Harry Maguire into a national hero) and wing backs, which minimized England's shortcomings and guided them to the semifinals, after beating Colombia in the last 16 and cruising past Sweden in the quarterfinals.
Croatia was simply too good in the semifinals, but Southgate -- elegantly dressed in a waistcoat and eloquent in his press conferences, had become a national hero.
That status would only increase in the following years as the arrival of new talents, such as Declan Rice, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish, allowed him to adapt his style of play, bringing an extra man into midfield and returning to a flat back four.
The home advantage certainly helped England, but there were some impressive displays on the way to the final of Euro 2020 (which was of course played in 2021), with fans especially enjoying a 2-0 win over Germany and an impressive 4-0 victory against Ukraine in Rome.
In the end, it wasn't to be in 2021, but the progress looked clear to see. Except for the fact that the past 15 months seem to have seen Southgate lose his way, switching from a back four, to three central defenders and wing backs and back to a back four.
Meanwhile, he has continued to give call-ups to new players, while others, such as Marcos Rashford and Jaydon Sancho seem to have dropped out of favor.
England was very poor in the recent Nations League as Southgate chopped and changed and what looked like a smooth evolution looks to have hit a wall of confusion.
Six years in the England job is probably enough to burn anyone and leave them suffering a crisis of confidence: Has that happened to Southgate, or is it all part of his 'plan'?
The next month will tell everything, but it does seem likely that even though he has a contract until 2024, this could be the international swansong for a likable and intelligent man. ■