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Gareth Southgate: You are already the second best England team ever – become the best

When Gareth Southgate brought his side together ahead of the World Cup, he had a very clear message. “You are already England’s second most successful team ever,” he proclaimed as he stood before them. “Now you have the chance to make history and become the most successful.”

The England coach is right. Reaching a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and the Euro 2020 final means that only Sir Alf Ramsey, and the players under his management, can be regarded as outperforming those in the six years since Southgate was appointed. That is already an indisputable fact.

In reality, aside from Ramsey, it’s an incredibly disappointing record, as Southgate has pointed out when speaking of the envy he feels when comparing England’s Wikipedia page to Germany’s: one World Cup against four and no European Championships compared to three – and a Confederations Cup.

Of course, the biggest step, the most memorable, the most difficult is the last. England have not yet won anything under Southgate. If they beat France, the world champions, in the quarterfinals at the Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday evening, they will have won nothing. But it would not only take them a big step closer to victory in this tournament, but it would also be England’s biggest victory on foreign soil. Ever. Just think about that.

It would also be the most important victory since the 1966 World Cup final. In the 56 years since then, there is very little to compare it to. So that’s the profound context we’re dealing with and one that should never be forgotten when critics insist that Southgate have beaten only the teams England would expect to beat. It should be remembered that before him these are the teams they also tried to beat.

Now Southgate has to move on – and make no mistake, he knows it – and it would be crushingly disappointing if France is listed in Al Khor alongside Germany in Bloemfontein, Portugal in Gelsenkirchen, Portugal in Lisbon, Brazil in Shizuoka, Argentina in Saint-Etienne , West Germany in Turin, Argentina in Mexico City and so on as locations where England have fallen short in knockout matches against other so-called ‘great nations’ in world football. After all, they have to beat one of them in a tournament away from home, right?

If they get the sense of euphoria it would inject, ahead of a semi-final against Portugal or Morocco, that would be extraordinary. Southgate England has overcome so many seemingly insurmountable hurdles that if they did it again, faith would soar.

Interestingly, Southgate itself embraced that concept. In a week taken up with fighting the threat posed by Kylian Mbappé, not allowing Antoine Griezmann to “rule the park”, as Southgate put it, and whether England will return to a three-man defense (for the record the manager reiterated his philosophical preference for 4-3-3 but also the need to be pragmatic) he eschewed tactics. Instead, he gave chase.