THERE was no triumphalism as England boss Gareth Southgate took his seat in front of the press in the bowels of Wembley Stadium. His side had just qualified for the World Cup finals, yet it hardly felt like a time for jubilant celebration. “At some stage in a few days’ time, we might be able to enjoy the fact that we’ll be playing at the World Cup,” he mused. Alternatively, they might start worrying about what could happen when they get there.

In many ways, Southgate couldn’t win when he took over from Sam Allardyce one game in to the current round of qualifiers. His side were in one of the easiest groups in the whole of the European qualifying campaign, and had already won arguably their most difficult match.

Making it to next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia was a minimum requirement, and Southgate has achieved it with a game to spare. He deserves credit for that, even if it is hard to discern any meaningful progress on his watch.

Loading article content

“When I was given the job a year ago, the objective was to qualify for Russia,” said the former Middlesbrough manager. “We’ve done that, and I always thought we would achieve the objective.

“I’m not going to say that we’re exactly where we want to be, but we’ve had six wins and two draws from the qualifiers during my year in charge. We’ve got one of the best defensive records in Europe in qualifying, but we’re a young side and we’re still improving. It’s crucial for this group of players that they made it to the World Cup, and they’ve done that now.”

It is hard to remember World Cup qualification being secured in so underwhelming a fashion, with Harry Kane’s stoppage-time strike securing a 1-0 victory in front of around 30,000 empty seats at Wembley.

England struggled to create chances despite dominating possession, and Southgate accepts the performance was probably a realistic reflection of where his team currently stands.

“It highlights where we are,” he said. “Of course, we would love to have played more fluidly and scored more goals, but we were playing against a team that made it really difficult for us to create chances.

“We couldn’t quite get that final ball, and that was the frustration. We’re having to find a way of winning by being a bit more savvy because we’re not flowing as we would like at the moment. But we have got goalscorers.

“We were resilient in a difficult period of the game when things were getting a bit anxious – there was a good save from Joe Hart in that period – and we are becoming a team that score late goals and don’t concede them. But was it the performance I wanted? No, absolutely not.”

Nevertheless, Southgate feels it would be wrong to completely underplay the achievement of making it to Russia, particularly as England continue to boast an unbeaten record from their competitive outings under his control.

“I was part of the team that qualified 2-2 against Greece (for the 2002 World Cup),” he said. “It was an exciting game at Old Trafford, but we didn’t play at all well. But all anybody remembers is David Beckham’s goal.

“I played in Finland when we drew 0-0 earlier in that campaign, and we were killed by everybody. Is this team exactly where we want it to be? Of course it isn’t. But it’s a young team, and it’s learning how to win. The players give absolutely everything, and they are going to improve, but it is a work in progress.”

Sunday’s final qualifier in Lithuania is now effectively a dead rubber, but Southgate will not be releasing any of his players and is reluctant to make too many changes.

“It’s important we stay together as a squad,” he said. “There will be England supporters going to Lithuania, and we have to try to put on a performance for them. We want to stay unbeaten and win, and while there might be one or two players we would like to have a look at, we won’t be changing everything.”  

England announced two home friendlies in the wake of last night’s game, with Germany visiting Wembley on Friday, November 10 and Brazil set to provide the opposition four days later on November 14.