Gareth Southgate determined to ensure England do not rest on their laurels

Gareth Southgate warned England’s quest for European Championship glory will be in “trouble” if their focus or commitment wavers after making a dream start to qualification.

The trip to reigning champions Italy and Sunday’s Wembley clash against Euro 2020 quarter-final opponents Ukraine provided a tough start on the journey to next summer’s finals in Germany.

But Southgate’s absentee-hit side bounced back well from the disappointment of December’s World Cup quarter-final exit to France, with last Thursday’s 2-1 victory in Naples representing a first win away to Italy since 1961.

England v Ukraine – UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying – Group C – Wembley
England could hardly have made a better start to qualifying (Nick Potts/PA)

Three days later England comfortably beat Ukraine 2-0 in front of a sell-out crowd, meaning they took maximum points from the hardest double-header in a group completed by North Macedonia and Malta.

The Euro 2020 runners-up are expected to record another six-point haul when they face the latter nations in the summer, but Southgate will not allow complacency to seep in.

“I would expect everyone would want to be here and want to be a part of it,” the England boss said of June’s trip to Malta and Group C qualifier against North Macedonia at Old Trafford.

“We’ll of course look to psychologically refresh the group by giving them some time off at the end of the season.

“But if we start to think that we haven’t got to turn up for games in June because the world ranking of the opponents isn’t as high as the two opponents we’ve had now, then we are in trouble, really.

“That’s not the approach we’ll be looking for and I don’t think the mentality of the team (is like that).

“We’re challenging the team to be the best in Europe in the next 13 months.

“That requires everybody’s commitment, that requires everybody to be prepared to play whenever and that requires the standards of training every day and everything we do to be at the highest level no matter who we’re playing against.”

This is England’s fourth attempt at winning a major tournament under Southgate, who oversaw the surprising run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals before going within a penalty shoot-out of triumphing at Euro 2020.

Further progress was visible on the field in Qatar, only for eventual finalists France to emerge victorious from their hard-fought World Cup quarter-final.

Southgate considered his future after that defeat but a week later committed to seeing through his Football Association contract that runs until 2024.

“I think that whatever had happened this week I still felt it would have been the right decision (to stay on),” the England boss said.

England v France – FIFA World Cup 2022 – Quarter Final – Al Bayt Stadium
England manager Gareth Southgate (right) saw his side knocked out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage (Mike Egerton/PA)

“For a start, I think the team can continue to improve.

“Had the decision been different, I think this would have been a really complicated week for somebody else to come in and take two matches with such a quick turnaround.

“But I’ve said to the players in the dressing room I love being a part of this team. They’re brilliant to work with.

“The players that haven’t got on the pitch this week – Eric Dier, Marc Guehi, Fraser Forster, Aaron Ramsdale – have been absolutely brilliant.

“Kieran Trippier, Reece (James) had 15 minutes where they had to come on, deliver to get us the win in Italy and they did. And that epitomises the spirit that they’ve got.

“Their commitment to each other is fundamental for why we’ve made progress over the last few of years and they showed that in abundance this week.”

Another key reason for England’s rise is the performances of record-breaking skipper Harry Kane.

Thursday’s penalty in Italy saw him become the country’s all-time top scorer – a figure he extended to 55 by opening the scoring against Ukraine, who were then hit by a Bukayo Saka stunner.

England v Ukraine – UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying – Group C – Wembley
Harry Kane has been in inspired form for England (Zac Goodwin/PA)

“I know the goals are of course important, but I liked his all-round performances,” Southgate said of captain Kane, who missed a key spot-kick in the loss to France.

“He was strong with both pairs of centre-backs that he had to play against and I thought that was a really good message for the team.

“He was backing into players, he was aggressive with his play and I think that’s important for him. He’s got to continue to do that.

“He’s somebody that I think it would be easy for us to get drawn into not challenging but we’ve got to challenge him as well.

“The individual accolades are well deserved and are amazing but he wants to be part of a team that’s successful. That’s the drive with England for us to achieve that.

“He’ll be just as happy that we’ve got the six points and put ourselves in a good position in the group as getting the two goals this week as well.”