Gareth Southgate has urged his players to stand up and be counted when England play their World Cup quarter-final against France on Saturday night.
England, who have never won a knockout game against an elite-level nation at a major tournament away from home, face a huge test of their quality and mental strength when they take on the world champions at the Al Bayt Stadium. There will be no room for fear against France, whose chief threat will come from Kylian Mbappé, and Southgate wants his side to show how how much they have matured since reaching the semi-finals in 2018.
“The biggest thing is going to be our mentality,” England’s head coach said. “We’ll be tactically prepared. But on these nights you’ve got to have men that stand up and take on the challenge. That’s the bit we’ve got to prove. We’ve had some outstanding nights and the next game is always the most important. It’s against a good level of opponent, one we’re ready for.
“One, if you’d asked me four years ago were we quite ready, I’m not sure. Now I feel differently and that’s because we’ve got evidence over a long period of results. Historically we have always talked well, but the evidence wasn’t there. Now we’ve got more evidence and we’ve got to nail this type of game now.”
England, boosted by Raheem Sterling returning to their base in Al Wakrah yesterday, have had near misses in their previous two tournaments. They relinquished early leads when they lost to Croatia in the last four of the 2018 World Cup and to Italy in the final of Euro 2020.
“We remind them of the hurdles they have overcome to get to this point,” Southgate said. “We have got players with big-match experience and I have no fear about the young ones because I think they are just going to go and play.
“There will be moments where France have bits of play and we have to accept that we are not going to stop them creating a chance. But we have to continue to be brave when those things happen.”
There has been speculation over whether Southgate intends to revert to a back five to counteract Mbappé, who has scored five goals in four games. The 52-year-old revealed that he picked his team on Monday and is expected to stick with the 4-3-3 that helped England beat Senegal in the last 16.
“Usually if we change shape it’s for a tactical problem rather than an individual problem,” Southgate said. He stressed that England’s forwards were capable of hurting France and he backed Kyle Walker to cope with Mbappé’s speed, though he added that combatting the Paris Saint-Germain striker must be a collective effort.
“You’ve got to have zonal coverage on players like that,” Southgate said. “We also can’t let Antoine Griezmann have the run of the park because he’s a pretty good player. You can’t, against a team of this level, just go out and play and not have any preparation for what they’re doing. But also we can’t overdo that. We’re playing well, we’ve got a lot of strengths and we want to keep accentuating those strengths to the players because they should go into the game in confident mood.”
Southgate hopes that Sterling will be able to be on the bench. The winger was back in training as England went through their final preparations, but he missed the Senegal game after flying back to the United Kingdom following a robbery at his home and only returned to Qatar yesterday morning.
England trained with a full complement in mild conditions. The players have spoken with conviction this week and Southgate did not blink when he was asked whether he had become a better manager.
“If we don’t win, I know where the buck will stop,” he said. “But that’s fine. I have to take responsibility. I feel good about where I am on my decision-making and my energy and my excitement for the game.
“I’d be an idiot if I hadn’t learned over five years managing some of the biggest games in world football, managing some of the most high-profile players in Europe. I know people think I have a preference for a certain system, but if anything my preference has always been 4-3-3.
“But I don’t think it’s always been appropriate for us. The job is not just to have a philosophy, the job is to win matches. You can have a philosophy but if you’re going home at the start of the tournament then the philosophy doesn’t wash.”
It was pointed out to Southgate, whose deal runs until December 2024 and takes in that year’s European Championship, that defeat by France could see him leave his post. “I would think the sun will come up tomorrow and life will be the same whatever happens,” he said. “It is not the point where we are thinking of going home. I have got confidence in the players. We are in a good place. We have got to step up mentally.”
Southgate ended on a positive note, laughing and saying that he was unlikely to celebrate goals by dancing like Brazil’s manager Tite, but he admitted his stance could change if England win the World Cup.
“That might be different,” he said. “I am quite happy to embarrass myself at that point. But not beforehand.”