(Persia Digest) - The Irish Examiner writes that Gareth Southgate has addressed his players and staff ahead of England’s playoff game with Belgium in St Petersburg today, giving them a clear message: “We have a chance to make history.”
England’s unlikely ride towards the World Cup final ran out of steam in Moscow on Wednesday night against Croatia, but Southgate is determined his team takes the game that will determine third and fourth places as seriously as if it were the final.
When England last played for third place, against Italy in 1990, both sets of players walked out together and were intermingled in the line-ups, giving it the air of a post-tournament friendly.
But Southgate has always stressed this tournament is the beginning of a journey, and doesn’t want it to turn into a jolly at this stage. Only the World Cup winners of 1966 have finished higher than fourth, and that is Southgate’s message to his players.
“We have a high motivation to perform and finish with a medal at a World Cup, which only one English team have ever done.”
His players appear to have recovered remarkably quickly, physically and emotionally, from Wednesday’s defeat, judging by the high spirits in training yesterday from a fully-fit squad.
“In terms of mentality, it’s been a really difficult couple of days for us,” said Southgate.
“We were 20 minutes from a World Cup final and then, in extra-time, 10 minutes from a shoot-out. The reason for us being here was to achieve that big goal. We got back to St Petersburg at 6.30am on the day after the game, so it was an emotion-fuelled few days.
“But these players are incredible, a pleasure to work with — their energy this morning and desire to finish the tournament well. We owe it as much to ourselves as to our nation to finish well. We’ve set the standard of how we work, the standard of how we play, and we want to maintain those standards right to the end.”
Harry Kane has the added incentive of World Cup Golden Boot to be won, and he currently leads Romelu Lukaku with six goals to the Belgian’s four. Yet such is the team ethic that Southgate has instilled in the camp, that not even the England captain is guaranteed to start, having looked leggy in his last two games.
“We have to decide who can go again physically,” said Southgate.
“We are very proud that Harry is currently top goalscorer but I’m not interested in individual awards. We’re here to win as a team. We have a captain whose first thought all tournament has been how far can the team go? He was on board with not playing against Belgium in the first game. He wanted to do what was right for the team. It would be even more powerful for him to win the golden boot having made that sacrifice, in my opinion.”
Kane is still only 24, younger than the average squad age of less than 26, and
Southgate believes his inexperienced side will learn from mistakes they made against Croatia, when they lost their shape and control of the game after taking an early lead.
“We had played brave and fearless football from the back, but (in the second half against Croatia) we went longer, turned the ball over a bit more. That meant we had to solve solutions with the weaknesses our system has, and couldn’t play to our strengths. It allowed Croatia to have more possession.
“But we’ll learn from that. Quite a lot of our players have never won anything. In terms of big match experience we’re way behind a side like Croatia. The only way to learn lessons is to play in matches like this as often as you can. The whole group will be stronger for that experience. We’ve become a more intelligent team in the last six months. That will continue to be a focus of our attention.”
Where Southgate stands out from England managers of the past is his understanding of football’s role in the ‘bigger picture’ in society, and his desire to heal some of the country’s cultural divides. There is no doubt he and his team have captured the hearts of the nation and formed a bond not unlike that of Gazza and Co from Italia ‘90.
“The desire of our public is for players to play with pride, first and foremost. They have seen a team who leave everything out on the pitch. They enjoy a team with style. We scored six in a game at a World Cup for the first time ever.
“The public have also got to know the players better, so that their perception of this group is different, there is an affinity there. It reminds me of Germany in 2006 where the youth of the team, the enthusiasm of their tournament at home propelled the team on in the minds of their public. That is where we are.
“The improvement over the last eight months has been dramatic, and we’ve had six matches playing with this system ahead of this tournament. The players are a lot clearer. We felt the best way to be successful was to play that system and get the detail as clear as possible. Now we’ve cemented that, we can look at other things moving forward and progress in other areas.”