Southgate keeps England grounded in face of building fervour

Coach aims to avert repeat of England’s blasé attitude ahead of Iceland defeat in Euro 2016

Gareth Southgate: “It would be silly not to look at previous tournaments and try to identify what we can learn.” Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

Gareth Southgate: “It would be silly not to look at previous tournaments and try to identify what we can learn.” Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

 

Overall there must have been half a dozen occasions when Gareth Southgate was asked whether he could understand the common perception that England had found themselves in a position whereby they might have a considerably better chance to reach a World Cup final than many people could have anticipated at the start of this competition.

Southgate chose his words carefully to make sure he could not be accused of sounding overly presumptuous or, worse, of saying anything that might inadvertently end up being part of José Pekerman’s team talk for Colombia.

He made the point that Marcus Rashford was eight years old on the last occasion England won a knockout tie in a World Cup – or any major tournament – and everyone knew why he was saying it.

Southgate’s only lapse came when he talked about today’s encounter being England’s “biggest game for 10 years”. He meant 12 years because, at the risk of being pedantic, England did not qualify for Euro 2008. But yes, the biggest game since England played Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, featuring a red card for Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous wink and yet more evidence that England are not made for penalty shoot-outs.

Southgate prefers to speak in plain English, not cliches, so he refrained from using the age-old phrase about “taking each game as it comes”. That, however, was the gist of it. Very sensible, too, when history suggests England should not get too far ahead of themselves. Reminder: there were members of Roy Hodgson’s staff punching the air when Iceland scored the last-minute winner against Austria that meant they would be England’s first knockout opponents in Euro 2016.

Southgate did acknowledge that England had found themselves in the best half of the draw, with the possibility of a quarter-final against either Sweden or Switzerland to follow and, beyond that, a semi-final against Russia or Croatia and no way of meeting France, Brazil or a fully functioning Belgium until the final.

Building fervour

England’s base in the pine forests of Repino may be secluded but Southgate is in enough contact with the wider world to understand that, as such, the fervour is building back home. “I am not surprised,” he said. “Whenever people say ‘I don’t care about international football’ that tends to be during the season. Then you come to a big tournament and it is not just football fans, it is grandads, it is aunts, everyone, supporting the team. And, for some reason, they like these lads.”

His bigger point was that this was not a time to think of any other match apart from the next one. “That was a trap we’ve fallen in the past,” he said. “I can see everybody is more excited but we have to think separately otherwise we just get carried away on the wave of emotion and we would not be thinking clearly about what we have to affect. We have to control the bits we have to control. But we would be foolish to focus on longer into the tournament.”

Again, it came back to the Iceland game and the mistake many people made of assuming England were set for a quarter-final against France in Paris. Hodgson and his assistant, Ray Lewington, did not even bother going to the Iceland-Austria game, preferring instead to spend the day sightseeing and going on a boat journey down the river Seine. Even now, two years on, it seems like a remarkable oversight and listening to Southgate it was clear he felt the attitude of the players was wrong, too.

“A few of these players, in the last championships, were in a fixture they thought they should win. Then, once they went behind, they suddenly felt that approach wasn’t correct. We won’t fall into that trap again, against a really good team. It is one of many games that we have unpicked because it would be silly not to look at previous tournaments and try to identify what we can learn.”

No clean sheets

Not to be too presumptuous, for starters. Colombia are hardly a team that England can underestimate, particularly if James Rodríguez is fit to take his place in a forward line with Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado. England have not kept a clean sheet here, and if they are to make it into the final eight, a lot depends on the three-man backline of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire, how well Jordan Henderson can shield them as the only defensive midfielder and whether Jordan Pickford can look more assured in goal.

At the same time England have Southgate’s first-choice XI available, with Fabian Delph the only absentee now he has flown home to attend the birth of his child – or, as Southgate put it, “buying his wife curries and all sorts of other strange things”. Southgate is encouraged by the energy of his team’s performances and did not seem too troubled when it was pointed out to him that it will be 999 days since Raheem Sterling, with two England goals in 40 appearances, last scored for his country.

“We have a very difficult opponent – a very good side who we respect – and the level of the game is going up a notch,” Southgate said. “But we think we can cause opposing teams a lot of problems, and that won’t change because we are in the knockout phase. We will continue to play in the style we have. I want the players, more than anything, to continue to attack the tournament as we have. That shouldn’t change in the knockout stage and, if anything, we should feel freer.”

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