Gareth Southgate believes his England team have improved yet again this calendar year – but there remains things to improve on.
After reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, an surprising success given pre-tournament expectations, the Three Lions have pushed on again.
This year they played in the finals of the inaugural Nations League, but finished third after losing their semi-final to the Netherlands.
They responded from that disappointment though by qualifying for next summer’s Euro 2020, where they will play group stage games at Wembley, and if they advance further will also play their semi-final and final games at the national stadium.
Southgate did not hide his regret at not winning the Nations League, but believes that performances and results continue to be on a positive trajectory.
“The quality of the game [against the Netherlands] was an important challenge for us, but also to go to Portugal and play with 20,000 England fans in the stadium and some pressure on the game, because we had the chance to win something,” Southgate told thefa.com
“For our young players in particular – for quite a few of them – that’s the biggest game they’ve ever played in.
“Those experiences are crucial for the development of the team. It wasn’t what we wanted, there were elements of the performance that were good and we were a VAR decision of half a foot, which has now become quite commonplace, but that was one of the first we’d experienced.
“These are the fine margins in those big games, but as an experience the whole competition was a really good one for us.”
England won their third-place playoff game against Switzerland on penalties, a result that Southgate doesn’t underestimate.
“It was still important to win that penalty shootout, and again, another good experience,” he said. “We came away from the whole competition with some progress having been made.”
Nevertheless, Southgate know the areas that his time still need to improve on ahead of what is almost a home tournament.
“In our mind we knew a lot that needed working on and it fixed our mind as a group of coaches for what needs to happen ahead of next summer in particular,” Southgate added.
Away from action on the field, England’s players were the victim of racism in Montenegro and Bulgaria, while Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez had a falling out in November following the Liverpool and Manchester City game.
Reflecting on those incidences, Southgate is of the opinion that actions taken have strengthened the team.
“They were an important moment for us as a team, that everybody felt supported and everybody felt the team were united in what they were going to do,” he said. “We definitely got to that stage as the year went through.”