Gareth Southgate has urged his players to stand up and be counted when England play their World Cup quarter-final against France on Saturday night.
England, who have never won a knockout tie against an elite-level nation at an away major tournament, face a huge test of their quality and mental toughness when they come up against the world champions at Al Bayt stadium. There will be no room for fear against France, whose main threat will come from Kylian Mbappé, and Southgate want his side to show how much they have matured since reaching the semi-finals in 2018.
“The most important thing is going to be our mentality,” said the England head coach. “We will be tactically prepared. But on those nights, you have to have men who stand up and take on the challenge. That’s the little we have to prove. We had exceptional evenings and the next match is always the most important. It’s against a good level of opponent, the one we are ready for.
“First, if you had asked me four years ago if we were completely ready, I’m not sure. Now I feel differently and that’s because we have evidence over a long period of results. Historically, we always spoke well, but the evidence was not there. Now we have more evidence and we need to nail this type of game now.
England, boosted by the return of Raheem Sterling to their Al Wakrah base yesterday, came close to missing their previous two tournaments. They gave up early leads when they lost to Croatia in the last four of the 2018 World Cup and to Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
“We remind them of the hurdles they’ve overcome to get to this point,” Southgate said. “We have players who have experience in big games and I have no fear for the youngsters because I think they will just go and play.
“There will be times when France have pieces of play and we have to accept that we are not going to prevent them from creating a chance. But we have to continue to be brave when these things happen.
There has been speculation over whether Southgate intends to return to a back five to counter Mbappé, who has scored five goals in four games. The 52-year-old revealed he picked his team on Monday and is expected to stick to the 4-3-3 that helped England beat Senegal in the round of 16.
“Usually if we change form it’s for a tactical issue rather than an individual issue,” Southgate said. He stressed that England forwards were capable of hurting France and he backed Kyle Walker to deal with Mbappé’s speed, while adding that fighting the Paris Saint-Germain striker must be a collective effort.
“You have to have zonal coverage on players like that,” Southgate said. “We also can’t let Antoine Griezmann lead the park because he’s a very good player. You can’t, against a team of this level, just go out and play without having any preparation for what they’re doing. But we can’t do too much either, we are playing well, we have a lot of strengths and we want to continue to accentuate those strengths for the players because they have to come into the game with confidence.
Southgate hopes Sterling can be on the bench. The winger was back in training as England began their final preparations but missed the match against Senegal after flying to the UK following a flight to his home and only returned to Qatar yesterday morning.
England trained with a full squad in mild conditions. The players have spoken with conviction this week and Southgate didn’t blink when asked if he had become a better coach.
“If we don’t win, I know where the buck stops,” he said. ” But it’s good. I have to take my responsibilities. I feel good where I am in my decision-making, my energy and my enthusiasm for the game.
“I would be an idiot if I hadn’t learned in five years how to manage some of the biggest games in world football, how to manage some of the most prominent players in Europe. I know people think I have a preference for a certain system, but my preference has always been 4-3-3.
“But I don’t think it’s always been appropriate for us. The job is not only to have a philosophy, the job is to win matches. You can have a philosophy, but if you go home at the start of the tournament, the philosophy doesn’t fade away.
It has been pointed out to Southgate, whose contract runs until December 2024 and takes charge of that year’s European Championship, that defeat to France could see him quit. “I think the sun will rise tomorrow and life will be the same no matter what,” he said. “Now is not the time when we are thinking of going home. I trust the players. We are well placed. We have to progress mentally.
Southgate ended on a high note, laughing and saying he was unlikely to celebrate goals dancing like Brazil manager Tite, but he admitted his stance could change if England won the Premier League. world.
“It could be different,” he said. “I’m quite happy to embarrass myself at this point. But not before.”