England meet Spain in their first game since their World Cup semi-final exit
Gareth Southgate is proud of England’s progress but now the focus returns to development as his World Cup heroes look to build on their Russian adventure.
Spain kick off the next cycle in Saturday’s UEFA Nations League opener at Wembley, the Three Lions’s first game since their memorable summer run to the semi-finals.
Harry Kane will be presented with the Golden Boot as a sell-out crowd show their appreciation to the England squad, but Southgate knows they cannot bask for long in the World Cup afterglow.
The 48-year-old points to the fact there are just 20 matches and 10 camps before Euro 2020 and reiterated his side are far from the finish product.
“It’s about development as a team, back to improvement,” Southgate said.
“Over the summer you’re looking for results – now it’s about improving as a team, developing the way we play. Improving the tactical detail of the way we play and testing ourselves over the next few months, in particular, against some really top teams.
“The summer was brilliant and it’s great that we have a full house and that everybody will feel the appreciation and that we can step out in front of our fans again. But for us now the summer is finished and it’s about the next step and the next challenges.
“Sport doesn’t stand still for anybody. You’ve got to move forward, continually evolve, increase that competition.
“I know the players are of the same mentality, they’re all of an age where what’s next is the most important thing.”
This group have already achieved a lot, from ending England’s major tournament knockout hoodoo to reaching the last four and finally triumphing in a penalty shoot-out.
Saturday’s clash with Spain offers the chance to get another monkey off their back by beating a top side in a competitive match.
“I think we want to test ourselves against the very best,” Southgate said ahead of the Group A4 encounter.
“The last 18 months we chose to play Brazil, Germany, Spain, Italy, so we weren’t hiding from those fixtures.
“If you look back through history, England’s competitive record against top teams is non-existent. I think bar Argentina in 2002, who were a big disappointment in that tournament anyway, it’s very rare since the late 60s or early 1970s that we beat those top teams.
“So, this isn’t just this team, historically it’s not impressive. Ideally over the next couple of years we’d like to be going into European Championship with a record of beating top teams, so that you go in with that real belief and confidence.”
England missed an opportunity to end that wait in the third-place play-off against Belgium, while the semi-final loss to Croatia has not been brushed under the carpet.
“We reviewed it as we do most games, really,” Southgate said of the Moscow semi-final.
“Spain is a slightly different tactical test. They have outstanding midfield players in the same way Croatia did, but not the identical test that we faced. And, of course, we don’t 100 per cent know how they’re going approach the game with the new coach (Luis Enrique).”
Southgate says he will largely name the same side that started against Croatia on Saturday, with Luke Shaw pushing to come in for the overlooked Ashley
Young as Raheem Sterling’s injury withdrawal opens up an attacking role.
But the first name on the team sheet is likely be Kane, who joined Southgate in the pre-match press conference and will wear a pair of gold boots against Spain.
“I think if I look at other international managers, they would love to be in the position I am in to be able to pick him,” Southgate said of his skipper.
“I’ve sat with a few at matches over the last couple of months and they’ve told me exactly that.
“The great thing is Harry is 24, so to have reached the level he has already and with time on his side is really exciting.”