Gareth Southgate says England must beat the best to truly progress
Gareth Southgate knows England need to start regularly beating the likes of Belgium if they are to become the best side in the world.
The Three Lions head to Leuven on Sunday for a must-win Nations League clash against the world’s top-ranked side, who they impressively came back to beat 2-1 at Wembley last month.
But the shock loss to Denmark days later means anything less than victory in Belgium will end England’s hopes of topping Group A2, with Wednesday’s match against relegated Iceland still to come.
Southgate has more on his mind than simply making the Nations League finals but knows beating the Red Devils would be another step in their development.
“They’ve lost two games in 28, so they’re a fantastic team and they’ve proven that over a long period of time,” the England boss said.
“But our aim is to be the best team in the world and we’ve got to hunt these teams down.
“We were able to do it at Wembley. I think we saw what a top side they are there, so we know that we had to be at our very best with and without the ball to get that result.
“That will be the same tomorrow but we’re not fearful. We’ve got to go into the game with a very positive mindset.
“We know we can hurt teams, we’ve got players who can score goals, and we know we’ve conceded two in our last nine games so we’re an improving team.
“We’re a team that are going to get better over the next few years.
“You know, when you look at the age of youngsters like Declan (Rice) and the team that was on the pitch the other night (against the Republic of Ireland) – 19-year-olds, 17-year-olds, several 20, 21-year-olds.
“The future is so exciting. What we’ve got to do is make sure we’re getting results and progressing now as well.”
Things certainly look bright for an England side currently fourth in FIFA’s world rankings, yet Southgate knows progress will be stilted until they can regularly win competitive matches against the top teams.
While the Three Lions shone on their run to the World Cup semi-finals, Roberto Martinez’s Belgium won their group stage meeting and the third-placed play-off clash in St Petersburg.
“If you look at history we haven’t been a country that beats the big teams and that’s is the great challenge for us,” Southgate said. “There have been very few wins against the big nations in tournaments. That’s fact.
“And even in qualifying where I could go back to ’98, when we qualified Italy beat us at Wembley…we got a draw in Rome to get us through.
“The perception that we have been an outstanding nation doesn’t tally with the results over the years so that’s a great opportunity for this team.
“In the last few months before the World Cup I think we lost in France and Germany, had draws with Belgium and Germany at Wembley – we weren’t able to nail the big teams.
“Since the World Cup we had the win in Spain, draw and win against Croatia and now the win over Belgium last month.
“So we are starting to get those results but to be a really top team you have to do that consistently and that is the great challenge for us.
“It’s not an easy one because there are some fantastic teams out there – but it’s not something we are fearful of.”
England now have enough talent to strike fear into the opposition, with Harry Kane chief among their threats as the skipper prepares to mark his 50th cap with a victory on Sunday.
Southgate is having to deal with a number of key absentees ahead of the trip to Leuven – including defenders Harry Maguire, Conor Coady and Joe Gomez – although the versatility and strength at his disposal helps.
Talented Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Mason Mount can fill in numerous attacking positions, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka are as adaptable as they are talented.
“Once you are looking at a squad for a tournament, it gives you opportunities to perhaps include more attacking players,” Southgate said of the boost such options give England heading into next summer’s European Championship.
“If you’ve got players that can cover different defensive positions, different positions in the middle of the park, maybe you’ve got the opportunity to take the odd wildcard or different profiles of forward players.
“The easy way to do things is to go two for every position and build the squad that way. But so much depends on whether you have a fitness doubt with somebody and how big a risk it is to take them.
“If you’ve got those players that can cover a couple of positions, then you can take a little bit more of a risk perhaps with one more of the squad.
“It’s a great advantage to have, especially when you’ve got weeks like we’ve had in the last three camps, where you are losing players, you’ve got to be adaptable.
“Players that can come in and play different positions is a massive help for everybody.”