Gareth Southgate has urged the England team to aim for the top spot in global football rankings. He reminded them of the high expectations after observing a decline in their performance during their 2-0 victory over Malta at Wembley last Friday.
The coach is getting ready for the last Euro 2024 qualifying match against North Macedonia in Skopje, where there are concerns about the state of the field. Southgate has faced more players dropping out of his team, as Kieran Trippier is unable to attend due to a personal matter and Jarrod Bowen is out due to an unspecified injury. Rico Lewis may make his debut as a replacement for the left-back position.
Southgate was mainly worried about his team’s mindset and it was unusual for him to express such strong sentiments about their need for complete concentration. England had already qualified for the finals next summer before the Malta match and they are highly likely to be placed in the top seed group for the group stage draw on December 2, regardless of the outcome against North Macedonia.
Southgate acknowledged that his team may have risen to third place on the Fifa ranking list, surpassing Brazil. However, he also recognized that there had been excessive discussion within the camp about the upcoming match against Malta. When questioned about the idea that the game against North Macedonia was of little significance, Southgate became defensive, pointing out the potential for small victories to motivate the team. He has one final camp in March, during which England will face Brazil and Belgium in friendly matches before he selects his squad for the European Championship.
“We need to improve our performance from the match against Malta,” he stated. “Qualification is complete, but we cannot become complacent. Even though we are currently ranked third in the world, we still have two spots to climb in order to reach our goal. Every game is important and some players have only three chances left to secure a spot in the finals squad, while others have three opportunities to earn a spot on the starting team. In order to be a top team, our level of performance must be consistently excellent.”
“Do I strive to be ranked as the top team? Yes, because consistency is the key to achieving that. It also influences our daily actions both on and off the field. If we want to be the best, we cannot afford to be sloppy or casual. That should be our motivation. Our performance against Malta does not accurately represent us and that is not the image we want to portray.”
Southgate was asked if the players may have unconsciously slacked off against Malta now that they have secured qualification.
“Why?” he retorted. “What is our goal? Why should we settle for that? I cannot imagine a situation where you would think, ‘Let’s just finish these games.’ Perhaps that is why we haven’t reached our potential as a team in the past.”
Southgate discussed the potential mistakes regarding communication before the match against Malta. He expressed concern that there has been too much emphasis on the upcoming Euros and that it may have affected the team’s focus. He acknowledged that discussions about the summer tournament may have been a distraction during Friday’s game.
UEFA prohibited the utilization of the Tose Proeski Arena field for European matches in early August, stating that it could not be used until September due to ongoing problems. However, despite this ban, North Macedonia played a 1-1 draw against Italy on the field, prompting home team player Eljif Elmas to publicly apologize to the Italian team and label the pitch as “extremely subpar.” Italy’s Ciro Immobile also expressed concerns over the safety of the field. The pitch has now been replaced.
“I anticipate that it hasn’t fully come together yet, but time will tell,” stated Southgate. “Is it a cause for concern? That’s why it’s important to secure qualification well before the deadline. We stated this at the beginning of the campaign – you can never be certain of the challenges you’ll face away from home.”
Regarding Lewis, Southgate referred to him as a potential left-back. Southgate added that Lewis has experience in that position and has played multiple positions for Manchester City. He also expressed satisfaction with Lewis’ performance in training.