Gareth Southgate: Slovakia test is a chance to improve aspects of our game

Under-fire Gareth Southgate says it is time to deliver as England attempt to put an underwhelming group stage behind them by making improvements and progressing past Slovakia in the round of 16.

The road to Berlin has begun in unconvincing fashion for the Euro 2020 runners-up, with boos greeting the end of the 1-1 draw with Denmark and Tuesday’s goalless stalemate with Slovenia.

But England won Group C having started with a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Serbia at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, where they return for their first knockout match on Sunday.

Slovakia, who are ranked 45th in the world, stand in England’s way in the round of 16 – a stage they have progressed from in all three previous tournaments under the former defender.

Put to Southgate that nobody will care about the rights and wrongs of the group stage if they kick on in the knockout phase, he said: “That is the reality and of course we have to deliver it.

“The fact is you go into a different mental state. Everybody knows that knockout football is jeopardy, everybody knows that on a given day, an opponent can make it really tough for you.

“You know the quality of the opposition left is high and so it changes the mindset. It is about ‘how far can we go?’ We are trying to achieve something exceptional.

“But it is a step at a time and tomorrow is a chance to improve aspects of our game, to show composure in moments.

“The game will take us in different directions at different moments and you’ve got to be able to respond and react in the right way in all of those moments.

Harry Kane puts his hand to his face at the end of the Slovenia game
England have yet to click at Euro 2024 (Martin Rickett/PA)

“We have thrived in those challenges in the past and we’re looking forward to tomorrow.”

England are favourites for Sunday’s last-16 tie, with Slovakia head coach Francesco Calzona saying they have the best squad at the Euros and can become “unbeatable” if they click as a team.

A quarter-final against Switzerland in Dusseldorf next Saturday awaits the winner and Southgate said: “Now you’re into that world of it has to happen on the day. You’ve got to go for it.

“We’ve been here before many times, we know what it entails and I think everybody’s excited now about the challenge.

“We know we play a very good opponent, so we have to be right on our game with and without the ball. We know that some parts of our game we’ve executed well and some we need to do better.

“But I’ve seen a lot of signs within the game against the Slovenia and since then that that’s starting to come so, yeah, I’m excited about the game tomorrow.”

England need a positive performance on top of progress to lift the mood around the team, but Southgate says they arrive in Gelsenkirchen in good spirits.

Jude Bellingham and Eberechi Eze both celebrated their birthday on Saturday, turning 21 and 26 respectively, and Phil Foden returned to the camp after the birth of his third child.

Asked about Bellingham’s big day, the England boss said: “Well, we didn’t get a crate of beer out this morning, that’s for sure.

“It’s also Eberechi Eze’s birthday today and obviously Phil Foden has another addition to the household as well in the last few days, so there’s been a lot to celebrate and a good feel about the camp.

“I think the players have enjoyed some time together, not just training. We had a day where we were able to get them off their feet and not think about football.

“I think that’s important in a tournament. You’re surrounded by football, every conversation can lean that way and guide that way.

“So, I think to have a couple of days where they can play golf, play padel, they could do whatever they wanted to do.

“There’s no science behind that, there’s no data behind that, but there’s something about enjoyment that you have to remind yourself and I think that’s a crucial part of a team.”