England aims to build off run to semifinal ... Southgate laments lack of time to implement his system ... Belgians will fight for third place
MOSCOW — Gareth
Southgate’s penultimate meeting with the press sounded more like a World Cup debrief than a pre-match news conference ahead of Saturday’s third-place game in Saint Petersburg.
The Three Lions’ gaffer was asked if England’s run at this tournament could be “as good as it gets” after drawing a fairly straightforward path to this week’s semifinals.
“The reality is that none of us know if that’s as good as it gets,” Southgate answered. “(Our aim is to) build with a system now through the development teams where we’ve had a lot of success at junior level.”
England currently holds the under-17 and under-20 World Cup crowns.
However, winning at the junior level rarely foretells success.
For instance, Nigeria has claimed the most under-17 titles (five) but has never advanced beyond the Round of 16 at a senior World Cup.
“We’ve said now that at every age group we want to be constantly challenging for finals because if you’re in those moments of tournaments, your chance of success are high,” Southgate added.
“I suspect when the next rankings come out we’ll be back in the top 10. That’s probably where we are. We’re a bit outside the top four or five, but I think we’re competitive against all of those teams.”
In response to whether he’s scared England peaked at this World Cup, Southgate joked he’s not even scared of “the big bad wolf.”
“We’re here to try and improve every time we play and every time we go into a tournament,” Southgate said a day before the Three Lions meet Belgium.
“There were low expectations this time that relieved the pressure, but nevertheless there was still pressure to get out of the group and pressure to win their first knockout game and pressure to win their first penalty shootout.
“They coped brilliantly with all of that.”
As a result, the relationship between England’s players and supporters has softened.
“If we want to play for England we have to deal with expectation,” Southgate added. “It’s the same as if you’re at a big club. We’ve raised expectation. I don’t see a problem with that because we’ve also raised belief in the players.
“They can now associate playing with England with enjoyment and fun and not being under siege. There’s an energy and connection that’s back.”
Southgate was criticized following a 2-1 extra time loss to Croatia for failing to impact the game with his substitutions.
England’s changes were too like-for-like and did little to stymie a Croatian side that dominated the second half of Wednesday night’s game.
“You’ll always analyze every decision you make,” Southgate said. “And then you have to counteract that with how many good ones and how many you might do differently.
“Sometimes the ones you do differently are a lot easier with the benefit of hindsight.”
Southgate lamented having limited time to implement a system before the tournament.
“In terms of what we need to do, we just need to keep continually improving,” Southgate said. “We had six matches playing with this system before we came into the tournament.
“We felt the best way to be successful in this tournament was to play that system. We knew set plays might give us a competitive advantage, which they did.”
It wasn’t the first time Southgate has argued England aren’t a top side in world football.
“We know where we are,” he said. “We’ll finish as one of the top four teams in the world but we’re not ranked one of the top four.
“There’s plenty of room for improvement, which the players are up for.” SUMMER OF LOVE
Southgate believes England inspired a nation in the same way Germany did during its run to a third-place finish in 2006.
“The downside of is it took them another eight years to win,” he said. “I’m not looking for eight more years, by the way.”
Die Mannschaft laid the groundwork in 2006 before winning in Brazil.
“This (England) group is definitely stronger in two year’s time because of their age and because of their big match experience. We’ve been through brilliant experiences this time.
“There’s a culture that exists now every time we come together that we expect any new player who comes in to follow.”
Southgate added the perception surrounding England’s national team has changed. BELGIAN APPROACH
Belgian coach Roberto
Martinez insists the Red Devils will attack Saturday’s thirdplace game in hopes of exiting Russia with a warm feeling.
“We want to win,” he said. “When you finish a tournament you carry the feeling of the last game.”
The Belgians were flying high following a quarterfinal win over Brazil, but eventually fell flat in a listless semifinal loss to France.
“We’ve been here a month. We arrived on the 13th of June. It’s been an incredible experience,” Martinez added.
“Everyone who has been around the Belgium team has performed in an incredible manner.
“I think every Belgian fan deserves that winning feeling at the end of this tournament.”
Belgium has never finished better than fourth at the World Cup.
“We don’t want to take anything but a positive feeling out of the World Cup,” Martinez said.
England manager Gareth Southgate guides his squad during a training session.