Gareth Southgate tells England to lift their game and claim No 1 spot

<span>Photograph: Nick Potts/PA</span>
Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Gareth Southgate has told his England players they must target becoming the No 1-ranked team in world football as he delivered a reminder of the standards required after noticing a drop in the 2-0 Wembley win against lowly Malta last Friday.

The manager is preparing for the final Euro 2024 qualifier against North Macedonia in Skopje and at a stadium where there are worries over the condition of the pitch. Southgate has been hit by further withdrawals from his squad, with Kieran Trippier absent because of a personal issue and Jarrod Bowen out with an unspecified injury. Rico Lewis could come in for his first cap to fill the problem position of left-back.

Related: Kieran Trippier withdraws from England squad due to ‘personal matter’

Southgate’s principal concern was the mindset of his team and it was rare to hear him speak in such forceful terms about the need for total focus from them. England had secured their place at the finals next summer before the Malta game and they are virtually certain of being among the top seeds for the group-phase draw on 2 December regardless of the result against North Macedonia.

But Southgate, who has calculated that his team might have moved above Brazil and into third on the Fifa ranking list, admitted there had been too much talk from inside the camp about the finals in the buildup to Malta. He bristled when asked about the perception that North Macedonia was a low-stakes game – and where the marginal gains in motivational terms might be generated. Southgate has one more camp next March when England play friendlies against Brazil and Belgium before he names his European Championship squad.

“We’ve got to play better than we did against Malta,” he said. “Qualification is done. With the games at the weekend, we might be ranked third in the world at the minute but we’re two places off where we need to be so we can’t waste games. Some of the players have got three games to get into a squad [for the finals], some have got maybe three to get into a team. If we’re going to be a top team, then the level of performance has got to be spot-on every time.

“Am I driven by being ranked No 1? Yes, because ultimately you achieve that through consistency. Also, it sets behaviours every day on the training pitch, off the training pitch. If you are going to be the top-ranked team, there’s no room for sloppiness or casualness. That’s got to be our drive. Clearly the way we played against Malta isn’t the image we want to leave of ourselves.”

It was put to Southgate that with qualification secured there might have been a subconscious dropping off from the players against Malta.

“Why?” he shot back. “What are we trying to do? Why would we accept that? I can’t imagine in any other environment when you would be thinking: ‘Let’s just see these games out.’ Maybe that’s why we haven’t got to where we need to as a team in the past.”

Southgate opened up on possible errors over the messaging before the Malta tie. “I feel almost as if we’ve talked too much about the Euros already and I didn’t see our focus in the right place,” he said. “I think talk of the summer was a distraction on Friday. That was internally, yeah.”

Uefa banned the use of the pitch at the Tose Proeski Arena for European games in early August and said it was not to be used until the start of September while issues with it were resolved. But after North Macedonia drew 1-1 there with Italy, the home midfielder Eljif Elmas called it “a truly embarrassingly poor pitch” and apologised to “all Italians”. The Italy striker Ciro Immobile described it as dangerous. It has since been relaid.

“I would imagine it hasn’t quite knitted, but we’ll see,” Southgate said. “Is it a concern? That’s why you want to make sure you’re qualified well in advance. We said that right at the start of the campaign – you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get away from home.”

On Lewis, Southgate said he was an “option” at left-back. “He’s played there a few times, he’s played everywhere for Man City,” he said. “I’m really pleased with how he’s trained.”