England vs France: Gareth Southgate believes ahead of true test of how far his team have come


England’s last meeting with France came in Saint-Denis five years ago, in what was only Gareth Southgate’s eighth game in charge. The world champions in waiting went down to 10 men that night – Raphael Varane seeing red at the start of the second half, when the score was still level at 2-2 – and a formative, character-building win briefly appeared on the cards. Yet even then, Didier Deschamps’ side deservedly came out on top through an Ousmane Dembélé winner.

It was an entertaining end-of-season friendly with little riding on the result but the defeat and failure to make the most of the man advantage demonstrated how far England had to go before they could be considered among the very best in the international game. “There is no magic wand,” their manager warned. And yet just a year later, had a few things gone differently, their next meeting might have come in a World Cup final.

The pace of progression under Southgate since that evening in the Parisian banlieues has been rapid. If that much was not already clear from England’s results, it is reinforced by a glance at the team sheet from the 3-2 defeat. Tom Heaton started in goal. Aaron Cresswell was a second-half substitute, replacing Phil Jones. Kieran Trippier, now considered a part of the furniture and international veteran, was making his first appearance.

“We are different, there is no doubt about that,” Southgate said in the wake of the thorough 3-0 victory over Senegal in the last-16, thinking back to that last meeting with France. “We are obviously further down the line as a team.” Five years earlier, he had spoken of a gap between his side and Deschamps’, and the “hard work” that lay ahead in order to bridge it. They have remained the yardstick ever since.

“When we look at them at every age group when we are studying at all our development teams, they have such depth in every position,” Southgate said. “They have obviously lost quite a few players ahead of this tournament yet you look at the team and you look at the squad, it is still remarkably strong, so they are full of speed, they are compact and difficult to play against. You know the style of game you are going to get and it is a brilliant challenge for us now.”

Southgate took the impossible job at a time when England’s players had never looked so burdened by the fear of failure, the scars of defeat to Iceland at the previous summer’s European Championship still open. One of his predecessors, Fabio Capello, consistently said that this fear was at the root of the national set-up’s underachievement and yet his headmasterly, disciplinarian approach arguably only exacerbated the problem.

Southgate has taken a different tack, adopting a more open, collegiate way of dealing with his players, and it has produced a team that looks fearless in comparison to those teams of old. “There have been lots of moments when to play with England is difficult,” he said. “It’s a different sort of challenge to your club. It’s far more scrutiny. You play for your club, there are 20 stories every weekend and now there’s only one, really, with respect to the Championship and League One that are going on, so you have to be able to handle that.”

And whether players can handle that scrutiny and pressure that comes with playing for England now has equal weighting in the selection process as their form for their club. “When we’re selecting players we’re looking at their ability to handle that mentally as much as anything else. And these young lads that have come in are showing that,” Southgate said. “You never know until they are in these moments how that’s going to be but the team do have good experience of these big games now.”

Yet not one of them has specific experience of what they have to do on Saturday in order to reach another World Cup semi-final. No English player in the history of the men’s national team has. England have never beaten a major footballing nation in the knockout stages of a major tournament outside of England. “We’ve made quite a bit of history over the last four, five years, not all of it good,” Southgate joked.

“But that’s the great challenge. When you go back through those tournaments, you do see the teams that have knocked England out. We haven’t been able to do that so that’s the next test for this team.” Passing that test for the first time would be a fine marker of how far England have come, and whereas Southgate looked at his players five years ago and saw a gap to be bridged to the best, he looks now and he sees belief.

“There is a lot of experience of these moments and they know that they’ve had to win games in different ways, they’ve had to come from behind in big matches,” he said. “What we talked about tonight was keeping the relentless pressure going, not sitting back when we were ahead, making sure that we kept the intensity of our game, so we’ve got to do that now against the world champions.”

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