England are still improving – Gareth Southgate
The Three Lions are one win away from reaching the World Cup final.
Gareth Southgate believes togetherness and drive has been a winning combination for his eager squad, with even the Euro 2016 humiliation providing a platform as England reached the World Cup semi-finals.
Roy Hodgson’s men were humbled by Iceland two years ago, sending the national game into a tailspin that only worsened when new boss Sam Allardyce abruptly exited.
Yet there could be no safer pair of hands than Southgate, whose quiet revolution has been as rapid as it has been remarkable.
Just 21 months after taking the hotseat, initially on a temporary basis, England will face Croatia for a place in the World Cup final having beaten surprise package Sweden 2-0 in the quarter-finals in Samara.
“We are a team who are still improving” Southgate said. “We know where we are.
“We are having success because everybody is working so hard, everybody is working hard on the field.
“We are in this position because guys that are in the squad like (Gary) Cahill, (Phil) Jones, (Danny) Welbeck, (Nick) Pope, (Jack) Butland, (Danny) Rose, the older ones, have been exceptional in their mentality, their attitude to support the team, to train every day.
“Even though they’ve not had as much game-time as they would have liked, they are as much of a reason why we are where we are.
“I think that collective has been key. All of the support staff, all of the players are really tight. We’ve built that and to get through the two games we’ve had this week needed all of that because we’re not the finished article.
“We don’t have renowned world-class players yet, but lots of good young players who are showing on a world stage that they’re prepared to be brave with the ball, try to play the right way, have shown some mental resilience as well over the last few weeks.
“We know that in years to come, they are going to be stronger. But today was a huge opportunity for us and it was not something we wanted to miss out on.”
This group is tighter than previous generations in Southgate’s opinion, thanks to bonding in the development teams and an ability to put club rivalries aside.
Then there is the improved big-game experience, with the England boss thankful to predecessor Hodgson for being bold enough to give young talent a chance at Euro 2016.
“They didn’t have big-match experience and under pressure they suffered,” Southgate said.
“I think Roy took a lot of criticism for that, but he was brave enough to put a lot of these young players in – and without that experience, we wouldn’t have had a day like today because they’ve learned from that.
“With young players, you’re going to suffer at times. You’re going to have days when they’re not able to cope with things or adjust to things.
“And there’s no doubt that the experiences of two years ago have got a lot of these lads today – Dele (Alli), Eric (Dier), Harry (Kane), (Kyle) Walker – all on the pitch (in a better place).
“So they’re two years further on and we’ve benefited from that as well.”
It put England in good stead in Russia and the long term, too, albeit there are still hurdles to overcome.
Few know the pathways better than the Football Association’s former head of elite development and Under-21s manager, with Southgate believing better technical players are tempering the fact just 33 per cent of Premier League players are English.
“We’re in a World Cup semi-final – whether we’re in the top four in the world is something we would still have to prove, I think,” he said. “But, you know, we are progressing really well.
“We do have some good players, and they need opportunities to play.
Sliding into the Semi Finals like... 🏴❤️ pic.twitter.com/RF3XbMT9K4— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) July 7, 2018
“We’ve played some players – not just in this tournament but prior to that – who are very tender years in their careers, but we believe in them and we believe that they can play at a higher level.
“And hopefully with what our junior teams have been doing at international level as well, it will be a sign to all clubs that, whether it’s in England or abroad, that English players can play. That we have got players with super technique.
“I don’t think we would have seen the likes of (John) Stones and (Harry) Maguire playing in the way that they did in the past. English centre-backs bringing the ball out and playing with the composure from the back that they have.
“That for me is quite symbolic and why I joined the England FA five years ago because I believed that was possible.”