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No more Mr Nice Guy

Southgate to get ruthless in bid for glory following Nations League heartbreak

In Summary

• Lessons certainly needed to be learned but Southgate can also reflect on the progress that has been made since the last World Cup as well as the signs that his team is continuing to develop.

• Alexander-Arnold’s deliveries from the right were a big reason why England dominated. Is he England’s best crosser of a ball since David Beckham?

England manager Gareth Southgate during the Nations League match
England manager Gareth Southgate during the Nations League match
Image: /REUTERS

The bronze medal for coming third had simply been tossed in a bag, Gareth Southgate making it abundantly clear that he had no great desire to celebrate.

Sure, his spirits had been lifted here in Guimaraes on Sunday afternoon by the character his England players had displayed in winning another penalty shoot-out after dominating a Swiss side that appeared even less enthusiastic about a Nations League third-place play-off.

But Southgate revealed something of a tortured soul before climbing on a team bus bound for Porto’s airport, admitting that ‘over the last 48 hours’ he had ‘probably been awake for 47 of them’ as he reflected on an opportunity missed against the Dutch.

Lessons certainly needed to be learned but Southgate can also reflect on the progress that has been made since the last World Cup as well as the signs that his team is continuing to develop.

Trent Alexander-Arnold provided evidence of that development against the Swiss, even if Southgate was a little cautious in response to the question of whether the Liverpool youngster was going to be England’s right back for the next 10 years.

“Well he was very good in terms of his use of the ball,” said Southgate. “His technique for his crossing is fantastic. But there’s still a bit to do defensively; on positioning and awareness. I think Trent will catch the eye because it’s a new story and he did what we thought he would. But I was really pleased with the whole performance.”

“To lift themselves from the disappointment of the other night, and adapt to a change of system; we should have won the game more easily because it was ridiculous effort to have to go through to win a game of football in the end. In the long run, though, going through another shootout is good experience for us.”

Alexander-Arnold’s deliveries from the right were a big reason why England dominated. Is he England’s best crosser of a ball since David Beckham?

“He’s his own player,” said Southgate. “In training yesterday he wandered to the other end of the training pitch with a bag of balls, put one down - they had a wall up - he whipped it round the wall into the top corner and then just walked off. So we said ‘okay, a bit of pressure training! He’s got great belief in his delivery. When he was taking his corners, actually, there was too much on them. But it’s a great asset to have.”

“And he’s a good lad. His mum came to the hotel the other day — I’ve met her before — and she’s a wonderful woman. I think they feel part of the England family. I went to the States with him when he was in the under 17s a few years ago and he’s a lovely kid. He’s very proud of his roots and he’s given a lot to his own community as well. He’s also matured in that time. He got sent off in that tournament. When he was younger he had lapses of that. But he’s 20 years old and has already played in two Champions League finals. It’s an amazing start.”

Southgate said Jurgen Klopp has obviously managed his progress skilfully. “He’s shown great faith in him, to put him in the team at Liverpool and keep him in the team when he’s had a few difficult moments,” said Southgate. “That faith’s been repaid.”

Thursday was disappointing but since Russia there have been some fine performances, not least against Spain and Croatia but even more recently against Czech Republic and Montenegro.

“I think we have made progress, and the biggest sign of that progress for me was the mentality of everyone in the hotel in the last couple of days,” said Southgate. “Once we’d calmed all the emotion and the negative emotion, and the theories as to why we’d lost, the drive was there. We weren’t satisfied and everyone wanted to make sure we go beyond a semi-final next time. That’s the healthiest sign for me.”

Going beyond a semi-final, Southgate said, could well demand change, however. “Well, I think we created an environment that took a bit of pressure off the players,” he said. “We wanted them to relax, to express themselves, we’ve talked a lot about that. But there now comes a point where, actually, we’ve got to demand more and we’ve got to find another edge. If people can’t cope with it then they’re not going to be able to cope with it under pressure.”

“I’ve got to make sure that I’m constantly raising the bar with this group and we don’t accept any kind of sloppiness to creep in. I think the players want driving and they are starting to own a bit of that themselves, which is really important. I think all of the group have the potential to be with us but I think what we’ve got to do is keep driving, keep pushing the standards every day. It’s not just about the match days. The matchdays become a reflection of things which happen in training and they’re habits which take place every day.”

“We’re gaining expectation, we’ve brought incredible support here over the past four days and that expectation is incredible. We now want to deliver for them and we have to make sure that we are 100 per cent right in everything we do.”

Southgate said he had analysed Thursday’s defeat in some detail. “I’ve done a bit of watching the game back from the other night so I was clear on the messages to the players," he said. "When you lose there are millions of theories floating around a team as to what should have been done differently; if preparation should have been done differently.”

“Sometimes you have to dwell on that and boil it down to exactly why you lost the game, which was because of really poor decision making. I was very clear, it was really obvious to everyone watching that it wasn’t just the goals we conceded. We made too many errors on the night. We did not get our set play defending right.”

“But we had to prepare for the Swiss, changed to a diamond to do that. So there was a lot of work for all of the staff over the past 48 hours, and for the players to get in their mindset, as much as anything, that this game was important. And it’s a huge credit to this group of players to go 120 minutes in the last game of the season and win it. All of these things are going to help them become winners.”