Gareth Southgate tells a story, going back to his playing days with England and his last unhappy involvement in a World Cup, that probably sums up why he goes into the four‑month gap before the next international break in a much more confident mood about the psychology of the modern team.
Southgate was part of England’s World Cup squad in 2002 and an unused substitute on the day Ronaldinho’s free-kick sailed over David Seaman’s head to put Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team out of the tournament. The previous day, England had trained at the stadium in Shizuoka and Southgate started fearing the worst when the Brazilians arrived for their turn.
“I couldn’t help noticing that when the lads looked at them, it was with a touch of awe. Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos; it was like we saw them as superior to us. And when it came to the critical points in the match, we did not believe in ourselves. After their second goal, our self-belief just disintegrated, like we knew all along they were better than us.”
Fifteen years on, Southgate could probably have been forgiven for wondering whether the current group of players might have the same kind of inferiority complex when Brazil visited Wembley on Tuesday and Joe Gomez, to cite one example, was assigned to restrain Neymar on the day the young Liverpool defender was winning only his second cap. Southgate, not someone prone to exaggeration, described England’s opponents as being “as good as anything I have played against or seen” and needed a few moments when he was asked to name the other teams he would put alongside Tite’s team.
“These [Brazil], before France 98, definitely were. There was Argentina, with [Gabriel] Batistuta and [Ariel] Ortega and people like that. But this Brazil side have some world‑class talents and for Joe Gomez to have played like he has against Neymar was phenomenal. Joe played as I saw him play in the  under-17s Euros final. I saw him transfer that to another level and he has all the attributes to be a top defender.”
Southgate was not getting carried away, readily admitting the Seleção still seemed “light years ahead” in certain aspects, but the performances against Brazil and Germany, back-to-back 0-0 draws against the two sides at the top of Fifa’s world rankings, have at least given his players some new encouragement.
With England, it can feel sometimes like every silver lining has its own cloud but Southgate might have been on to something when he suggested, cautiously, that it felt very different to those unhappy occasions when the crowd’s discontentment had manifested itself in angry, mutinous outbursts. His team, he said, had “succeeded in changing the wind of public feeling” and that alone can be considered a success bearing in mind it was only two months ago England’s fans staged a mass walkout during the game in Malta.
The problem for Southgate is how to keep that forward momentum when there is such a long gap until the next internationals. Roy Hodgson’s idea when he was the England manager was to arrange a get-together at St George’s Park but that had to be abandoned because of the logistics and opposition from several clubs. Southgate and his assistant, Steve Holland, plan to do it another way before the friendly against Holland in Amsterdam on 23 March and the game against Italy at Wembley four days later – two matches, ironically, that were arranged to give England high‑calibre opposition but will pit them against nations that have not qualified for the World Cup.
“I am not certain of the value of one meeting, arranging to get everybody’s diaries to coordinate, and to cover what?” Southgate said. “It is really difficult and if we are going to bring everybody together there has to be a real purpose and benefit to doing it.
“I’d rather go on the road and see people individually, sit with them, go through how their game is going, ask what they think and maybe get small groups together at the clubs where we have four or five players. We will be visiting them at their clubs. We’ve got the time to do that, Steve and myself. We can travel. I think it is more beneficial and rewarding that way.”
As well as Gomez, five others players – Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke, Jordan Pickford and Jack Cork – have made their debuts in the past two fixtures. How many will retain their places in the squad remains to be seen but Southgate’s policy of experimentation has made it clear the opportunity is there. “It’s given them an experience they will want to have more of,” he said. “They will go back to their clubs full of excitement, full of energy, wanting to impress even more.”
As for the players who have made way, Southgate was asked whether those such as Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain could find a way back if they started playing more regularly. “Absolutely,” he said. “We have selected on form and what we think the players are capable of, physically. To play in these games you have to be at a really high level. You saw a lad like Eric Dier, who is a fantastically robust athlete, and he could hardly lift his feet a the end [of the Brazil match]. That is the intensity of the game now and to go into it you have to be at a super-high level of fitness. But if players are playing well, and we are seeing things we think will fit into the team, we will pick them.”
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