England no longer fear the world's top sides, says Gareth Southgate

  • Manager says 2018 World Cup was watershed moment
  • Team ready for tactical challenge of Belgium

Gareth Southgate has challenged his England players to win their next two games against Belgium and Iceland and top their Nations League group.

Sunday night’s match in Leuven promises to be the most difficult of the two assignments: Belgium are ranked No 1 in the world, but England beat them at Wembley and Southgate believes his side can take on the leading nations with new confidence since reaching the semi‑finals of the last World Cup.

“If you look back over history, our record against top sides is not all that great,” said the England manager. “There have been very few wins against leading sides in tournaments and before the World Cup we lost to France and Germany, but since we came back from Russia we have managed to beat Spain, Croatia and Belgium. That is because we have found a way to enjoy our football again.

“There was not a lot of enjoyment around when we first took over. We had just been beaten in the European Championship by Iceland and there was a huge amount of criticism. At first players were frightened of doing anything wrong, they felt under the spotlight, but now they know what reaching a World Cup semi-final feels like there’s a much more positive atmosphere around the squad. We are able to play without fear, even against the best opponents.”

England’s task in Belgium will be all the tougher because injury has deprived them of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez, while Harry Maguire is suspended. The Manchester United captain will travel with the squad because Southgate intends to hold a training session after the game in preparation for Iceland at Wembley on Wednesday.

“We are having to make adjustments, but this season everyone is having to make adjustments,” he said. “At least when the Covid test results came back they were all negative, so we know we don’t have to lose any more players. We were always going to need more than 11 players for these two games, they are not the sort of matches you can win in 30 minutes. Belgium will present a different tactical challenge but I believe we have the strength in depth to cope with it.”

Southgate would not be drawn on his own formation or tactical plans, though clearly defending will be important and with it the ability to strike quickly on the counter. “We have to be adaptable,” he said. “In the modern game you have to do all things well and against top sides you have to be decisive when an opportunity presents itself. It will be a challenge for us to defend against opponents with such good vision and technique. We will probably have less possession than we are used to, but we have some good players to choose from.

“All our midfield players can use the ball well and we know we can score goals. Belgium are a fantastic team, they have lost two of their last 28 games, but if our aim is to be the best in the world you have to hunt these sides down.We are not fearful about the prospect, we are a young team and an improving one. We know we are going to get better in the next few years.”

Harry Kane will win his 50th cap against Belgium and with 32 England goals to his name already the 27-year-old Tottenham striker has been backed by Southgate to beat Wayne Rooney’s record of 53. “Harry’s strike-rate is quite phenomenal and he has time on his side to chase Wayne’s record,” Southgate said. “If he can get his name on the all-time list it would be a tremendous personal achievement, but Harry is just as interested in winning something as a team.

“He’s been to a World Cup and won the Golden Boot, but with Harry it is not just about individual records. He is so focused on the team having success and I’m sure he would want to look back over the next few years at what England might achieve as a unit.”


Paul Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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