Gareth Southgate has brought England a long way… now they need to take a big step in 2020

Gareth Southgate mulled over a question about whether England’s fans should have bothered booing Virgil van Dijk on Thursday. 

Surely such provocation only makes the best players perform even better? Southgate grinned as an obvious answer had sprung to mind.

‘Well, I’m happier they’re booing the opposition now, rather than our players, which they were at the start,’ he said. 

Gareth Southgate needs to ensure that England take the next step at Euro 2020

‘We’re making progress! I remember driving through the streets of Malta and some of the songs they were singing that night … well, if Virgil has to take a bit, then fair enough.’

He was recalling the dirge of a performance against Malta in September 2017 when fans deserted the team, walking out of a display after 70 minutes, reckoning a night out on the Mediterranean Island a much better bet than watching this England. 

That is the context for any criticism that comes Southgate’s way this weekend. England have now become a team that fail in semi-finals.

England were left dejected against Holland but Southgate insists they are making progress

England were left dejected against Holland but Southgate insists they are making progress

On Sunday they face Switzerland in their second successive third-place play-off. This represents an enormous step forward.

England lost their way again on Thursday in the inaugural Nations League semi-final against Holland, losing 3-1 after extra-time. 

They looked like being on the verge of something — they were a VAR call away from getting over the line — yet imploded and in even more spectacular fashion than they did against Croatia at the World Cup.

Yet, given that the run to this semi-final, which meant beating Spain and Croatia, was much more difficult than getting to the World Cup last four, this is light years ahead of the last 23 years of England performances.

Gareth Southgate says he and assistant Steve Holland are committed to the England cause

Gareth Southgate says he and assistant Steve Holland are committed to the England cause

Kyle Walker and Harry Kane in training as England prepare to take on Switzerland

Kyle Walker and Harry Kane in training as England prepare to take on Switzerland

And Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland are committed to making good the mistakes against Holland and putting them right at Euro 2020 where their next semi-final — should they make it — would be at Wembley.

Southgate’s confidence that sidekick Holland will be around to support him is significant. Chelsea are in the market for a manager or coach willing to work despite a transfer ban. 

That explains why Holland, who was at Stamford Bridge as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, is on their shortlist. 

They need a man who knows the club and the raft of talented academy graduates on whom they will probably have to rely next season. Yet Southgate feels he would know by now if Holland was about to leave.

‘We’ve discussed pretty much everything,’ said the manager. ‘Not absolutely everything but most things. So unless there has been something and he’s going to wait until we’re finished out here…’ he added, light-heartedly. ‘For sure we’d discuss everything and we we’d be very much on the same page.

‘I also understand that when you have good staff they’re going to be coveted by others. That’s a healthy sign. Steve is hugely important to everything we do. 

‘We are probably the two who live and breathe every single minute of preparation for England, selection of players, tactical preparation, because we are the two people who are full-time on that side.

‘For me he is hugely important in terms of his experience, his knowledge, the way he delivers the coaching.

‘I am sure at some point in the future he’s going to want to be a manager and take that opportunity. I don’t believe that would be now because he is very committed to the work we are doing, looking forward to next summer, and hopefully this team will develop.’

Southgate, too, would be an obvious fit now for some of the struggling big six teams yet he insisted: ‘The only thing on my mind is that we’ve got a European Championship next summer and we’ve got to keep improving to be the best possible team we can be for the country. 

‘We brought 20,000 fans here, which is remarkable, a sign of their engagement back with the team and belief in what we’re trying to do. So why would I rush to leave that opportunity?

‘Next summer? Maybe that’s out of my hands, depending on how the tournament goes. But I’m committed to England, simple as that. I don’t need to hedge my bets. There’s no way I’d leave England at this moment to take any job.’

Liverpool defender Joe Gomez is expected to come into the starting lineup against Switzerland

Liverpool defender Joe Gomez is expected to come into the starting lineup against Switzerland

John Stones will pay the price for his calamitous defending against the Dutch, with Liverpool’s Joe Gomez coming in against the Swiss. That may represent the future.

Fabian Delph, who had the look of a man who had not started a League game since Boxing Day, should make way for Dele Alli.

Champions League-winning captain Jordan Henderson’s sore hamstring means he has not trained so is unlikely to play. Marcus Rashford is also out and Harry Kane will start. Ben Chilwell’s injury and Kyle Walker’s display means Trent Alexander-Arnold and Danny Rose will play at full back.

Southgate thought Declan Rice played well against Holland given his inexperience in such games. But he must learn quickly because England cannot afford to lose control of midfield the way they did on Thursday. It is hard to win any trophy if you cannot boss the game.

Southgate is adamant that England will be a stronger side in 12 months' time

Southgate is adamant that England will be a stronger side in 12 months’ time

England’s 3-5-2 formation at the World Cup was designed to hide their midfield weakness, their lack of a real Frenkie de Jong-type holding player. Harry Winks is the closest England have and he would have been here if Southgate was more sure of his fitness. Winks had a good Champions League final.

This time next year, though, we will be three days away from the opening game of Euro 2020, which will be held across the continent. The climax — both semis and the final — will be at Wembley, the opportunity of a lifetime.

Southgate vowed: ‘Will we be better in 12 months? Absolutely. We constantly need to improve. Individuals, because of their age, are bound to improve and are hungry to do that. They want to drive on. They don’t want to be comfortable with semi-finals. It’s not enough for them or me.’

Southgate’s part in the last semi-final England hosted at Euro 96 hardly needs a reminder. He and his team must take the final step.