Gareth Southgate is relishing England’s “acid test” against reigning champions France as his side look to create more history in Saturday’s blockbuster World Cup quarter-final.
Having topped Group B without fuss, the 2018 semi-finalists opened the knockout phase with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Senegal in Sunday’s last-16 encounter.
England overcame heightened expectations and a bright start by the African champions at Al Bayt Stadium, where they will return this weekend to take on what Southgate called “the very best” in Qatar.
“You know, this is the acid test for us,” Southgate said. “We know it’s a step up from everything we’ve had so far.
“But the team have garnered so much experience in the last few years. They’re playing with confidence.
“We look threatening, we’re scoring goals, another clean sheet, which was really pleasing to see.
“So, we’re in a good place, but we know the level of the opposition as well.”
England have reached the quarter-final stage in three successive tournaments and are now looking to beat an elite nation in a knockout match on foreign soil for the first time.
This is the acid test for us. We know it’s a step up from everything we’ve had so far.Gareth Southgate
“We’ve made quite a bit of history over the last four-and-a-half years,” Southgate said in the bowels of Al Bayt Stadium. “Not all of it good!
“But that’s the great challenge. When you go back through those tournaments, you do see the teams that have knocked England out.
“We haven’t been able to do that, so that’s the next test for this team.”
England’s World Cup dreams were extinguished at the semi-final stage in 2018 with an extra-time loss to Croatia, which they followed by reaching last year’s European Championship final against Italy.
Those runs underlined their progress, but Southgate has always stressed the need to start beating elite teams on a regular basis if they are to become the best side in the world.
England lost 3-2 to 10-man France in Paris when the sides last met in a 2017 friendly, which Southgate said at the time underlined the gap between them and the best sides.
“We are different, there is no doubt about that,” he said looking back to that time. “We are obviously further down the line as a team. They have incredible depth of talent.
“When we look at them at every age group when we are studying at all our development teams, they have such depth in every position.
“They have obviously lost quite a few players ahead of this tournament, yet you look at the team and you look at the squad, it is still remarkably strong.
“They are full of speed, they are compact and difficult to play against. You know the style of game you are going to get and it is a brilliant challenge for us now.”
Southgate has to find a way to stifle France’s stars on Saturday night.
There might be a temptation to go safe and return to a three-man backline flanked by wing-backs, having used a back four in Qatar to date.
“Well, we’ve always got to get the balance of the team right,” Southgate said. “We’re wanting to be positive, we feel we’ve done that so far in this tournament.
“I think we’ve got energy in the team, we’ve got legs in the team, we’ve got depth in the squad, so I don’t think we should be drifting too far from what we’ve been.
“You’ve obviously got to make allowances for the opposition and find out where you can exploit them, but we’ve got good players to come in as well.”
Southgate’s selection and set-up will be discussed in great detail ahead of the quarter-final against star-studded France.
But, while Les Bleus have Kylian Mbappe, England have Harry Kane.
The 29-year-old produced three assists in the group stage and got off the mark in Qatar against Senegal, with the 2018 Golden Boot winner lashing home on the stroke of half-time.
“I think for any striker when you haven’t scored it is there in the back of your mind, and you get that lift of confidence when it comes,” Southgate said.
“It was great. There’s still nobody I’d rather have in that moment, bearing down on goal and a really clinical finish, so that will do him the world of good.
There’s still nobody I’d rather have in that moment, bearing down on goal and a really clinical finish, so that will do him the world of goodGareth Southgate on Harry Kane
“The great thing for us is that the goals have been spread, we’ve not been dependent on him.
“I think we have only a couple of goals from set-plays as well, which in the past was a huge percentage of our goals.
“So, it’s great that we are showing another side to our attacking play.”