Southgate faces England shortcomings after France defeat

'There is no magic wand,' says the Three Lions boss as he takes lessons from Paris

England manager Gareth Southgate
England manager Gareth Southgate
(Image credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images )

One of the mysteries of modern life is how England have managed to convince the world they are still a major football nation when all the evidence suggests otherwise.

Apart from that World Cup win more than half a century ago, the Three Lions have never reached the final of a major international tournament and it's now more than 20 years since they appeared in a semi-final.

Yet still the press and public talk up England as if they're credible contenders for every tournament that comes around, only for the expectations to turn sour when their boys lose to Iceland. Successive managers have bought into the fantasy, too, allowing their imaginations to run wild at the behest of the tabloids.

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But not Gareth Southgate. The England manager was refreshingly honest as he picked over the bones of Tuesday night's 3-2 defeat to France, a result that leaves him with just three victories from his first eight matches in charge and those against Malta, Scotland and Lithuania.

England are still on course to qualify for next year's World Cup, thanks to the ease of their group, but Southgate knows his side are far from being serious contenders in Russia. "We have some young players coming through who have really good potential and can be exciting but there is no shortcut," he said. "I am afraid there is no magic wand but we are recognising where we are short, we are recognising where we can exploit teams. We've had some joy doing that but our game, in all areas, without the ball has to improve."

Tuesday's result emphasised the gulf in class between England and the best nations in the world, with France strolling to victory in the second-half despite the fact that they played half the game with ten men following the dismissal of Raphael Varane.

Southgate admitted that he had made his dismay plain in the dressing room afterwards: "There was no point raising my voice but equally you can't sugar-coat what happened in that final 30 minutes," he said. "I don't think that does any harm. I think they know anyway, they are a very honest group of players. It's a big challenge...[but] that's the reality of where we are as a country."

But much as he regretted England's inability to get a result in Paris, Southgate said he wasn't surprised by the outcome. "I am not shocked. I saw France a lot last summer [during Euro 2016]. I know the power and athleticism they have and the speed. I also know where we are as a team and the hard work that lies ahead to try to bridge the gap between the three teams we've played. The only way we can understand the gap is by playing these teams. If we'd played lesser teams and won maybe we would all be getting excited and thinking we are better than we actually are. The reality is to find out exactly where we are against the very best."

The difficulty for England is that between now and the World Cup there are scant opportunities to test themselves against the best. Their next four qualifying matches are against Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia and Lithuania, none of whom are among the top twenty teams in the Fifa rankings. It's one of the problems for a nation like England, certainly compared to their rugby counterparts, who have the annual Six Nations tournament as a way of measuring themselves against Europe's finest.

And it also leaves them at a disadvantage to African and South American nations, who have regular tournaments in the Africa Cup of Nations and the Copa America in which to experience the intensity of top-flight international competition.

"I know we are improving and I know the players are receptive but I also know that's not going to happen in the space of two or three months," said Southgate. "I've got to keep that at the forefront of my mind. I want the players to feel disappointed because they have to recognise the moments when they have an opportunity to get a really good result."

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