England manager Gareth Southgate believes his team is peaking at just the right time as the Three Lions look to make their mark at this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
England’s March 1-0 friendly win against the Netherlands and 1-1 draw against Italy at Wembley saw Southgate’s style of football praised.
Since taking over the hot seat from Sam Allardyce, who left in September 2016, Southgate revealed he has been continually building for Russia.
The former Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough centre-back admitted he has seen improvements in his side after qualification for the World Cup was secured.
Indeed, the 47-year-old, who won 57 caps as a player, spoke candidly about his side’s performances in their qualification group, which they won by triumphing in eight and drawing in two of their fixtures.
“We’re still a long way from where we want to be, but I think the most pleasing thing is that people understand what we’re trying to do and trying to build,” said the manager. “Players have a much better understanding of the style and identity.
“I think that’s definitely been the case more recently. Through qualifying, if I’m frank, we didn’t really play as I wanted us to play and I was always trying to balance the need to qualify and get to the tournament with evolving the team and the style.
“Now it’s more about the fact we’re progressing – as I’m travelling around, people are talking about the identity of the team.
“They’re recognising what we’re trying to do and the style of play, young players coming into the set-up.
“It feels as if in November and March we’ve really improved and we have to keep that improvement going.”
Southgate was at St. George’s Park, Burton-on-Trent, last month for the draw of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship, set to be held in England for the first time from May 4-20.
Steve Cooper’s Young Lions were drawn in Group A with Switzerland, Italy and Israel. They kick off the tournament against Israel at Chesterfield FC on Friday 4 May (7pm), face Italy at Walsall FC on Monday 7 May (3pm) before taking on the Swiss at Rotherham on Thursday 10 May (7pm). Burton Albion, Loughborough and St. George’s Park are also hosting matches.
Cooper led last year’s U17 group to World Cup glory in India and Southgate was the first to acknowledge the importance of the forthcoming tournament to the Young Lions as they aim for a career on the big stage.
“For our youngsters to have a tournament on home soil is a great honour, first and foremost, but it’s also a great learning curve,” said Southgate. “They’ll have to deal with a little bit more attention and a little bit more focus on them as a team.
“These tournaments are a great experience and part of the pathway for us in getting players ready for the senior team.
“We’ve had success at U17 level a couple of times in recent years and last year at U19 and U20 as well.
“That means there’s some consistency in the way we’re working. There’s a plan at St. George’s that is starting to deliver and we have to take that forward into the senior team as well.”
See the stars of tomorrow in the UEFA European Under-17 Championship, 4-20 May 2018. Visit www.TheFA.com/U17Euro for tickets and further information