Gareth Southgate admits that he questioned himself. Which foot does Mason Greenwood, one of the new call-ups to his England squad, prefer to use? “I feel slightly embarrassed,” the England manager said with a smile. “You’ve picked a player for England and you’re not sure which foot he kicks the ball with.”
For the record, Greenwood says that he just about favours the left, although his comfort with the right is part of what makes the Manchester United forward such a special talent. “The way he’s got this icy-cold stare and a very calm disposition generally … I think that’s clear when he’s in and around the penalty box and for somebody of his age, that’s remarkable maturity,” Southgate added.
What has stood out for the manager since he assembled his squad for Saturday’s Nations League tie against Iceland in Reykjavik and the one against Denmark in Copenhagen on Tuesday has been Greenwood’s exuberance or, to put it another way, the sheer thrill he has got from being in the England squad for the first time.
It has not just been Greenwood but all of the new boys – Phil Foden, Conor Coady, Kalvin Phillips, Jack Grealish and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. “It’s been wonderful to see the reaction of the new call-ups, just the joy,” Southgate said. “It takes you back to why you started playing the sport and sometimes we can forget that. To play international sport for your country is the pinnacle and it’s been a lovely reminder this week with those players.”
Southgate did not disguise how good it has felt to be back, to be doing what he is supposed to do once again. The last time he was with his players was in November for the 4-0 win over Kosovo in Pristina. That rounded off a free-scoring qualification for the European Championship – no team scored more than England’s 37 goals from eight ties, not even the countries who played 10 games – and there was excitement about the finals before coronavirus changed everything.
Southgate’s squad selection for Iceland and Denmark was the most complicated he had known and not only because of the Harry Maguire episode. The main issue has been that his players have been at different stages of their pre-seasons, with different levels of fitness, and the virus has played havoc with the logistics.
Southgate said that he had only returned to his office two weeks ago, never mind the training pitch, because the Football Association’s HQ had been closed. “Just to step out of the house and get used to walking around in masks and with all the restrictions has felt strange,” he said.
But the manager also made the point that since his players reported, it has been more straightforward, with the youthful energy mixing with the hunger of the seniors to create an upbeat feel.
Iceland are without six key players, including their Premier League men Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who made themselves unavailable, and so England are heavy favourites to sweep them aside – which plays out well against these opponents.
More broadly, Southgate tried to get the messaging right about the next step for him and the team, about the targets for this most hectic of international seasons that will end with the Euro. He knows that for the senior players it is about winning tournaments. The semi-finals at the last World Cup was a fine achievement but reading between the lines, Southgate accepts that they must now go further. “We always have to measure what our internal targets are and how bold we go publicly, and there is a balance there of not heaping pressure on the team but accepting there is expectation on the team,” he said. “We have had a good run of two or three years now and to just get where we did before won’t be received with as many accolades as we had in the past. The team has to acknowledge that, but they are hungry for that.”
Iceland will always be synonymous with one of England’s most gruesome results – the 2-1 last-16 exit at Euro 2016 which ushered in Sam Allardyce and then, with indecent haste, Southgate. The difference between that night in Nice and now is stark.
“The biggest thing from the Iceland game was the patience once you go behind,” Southgate said. “Very often you prepare the team for a 0-0 and we don’t like to talk about what happens if you go behind. But in any game the opposition can score out of nothing. So then it’s decision-making under pressure, patience – that’s something we’ve really added.
“The players know that if we’re ever behind then we keep doing things the way we do them, we stay calm, we make the right decisions on when to take shots or when to get into better areas. We definitely used the Iceland game as one of a few to learn from.”
Southgate, who is expected to stick with a back four against Iceland before trying a back three in Denmark, spoke about the “different levels of confidence” in the set-up now, how “one of the biggest signposts” to the change in attitude was “the way the guys have been desperate to be here this week”.
There is a lighter feel to the England shirt at present. Southgate must pick up where he left off in Kosovo.