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Published 27 December 2023 8 min read
England Men's Senior Team

Gareth Southgate reflects on 2023 and looks ahead to hugely exciting 2024

Written by:

Frank Smith

England manager looks back on the last 12 months and discusses next summer's UEFA EURO 2024 in Germany

Unbeaten in the calendar year, qualification for EURO 2024 secured, several exciting talents blooded for the first time… there was a sense of ‘job well done’ when Gareth Southgate sat down to assess England’s 2023.

You only have to look at the last World Cup to know it is not a given that all of the top teams and players will appear at a major tournament.

But despite having reigning champions Italy and EURO 2020 quarter-finalists Ukraine in their group, the Three Lions booked their place in next summer’s finals in Germany with two games to spare.

Southgate said: “I am really pleased with how the team have played this year. In simple terms, it was eight wins and two draws, with the detail behind that being it was one of the most complicated qualifying groups, probably the hardest on rankings.

“So we were really pleased to get qualification secured early. The performances and results against Italy in particular were key within that. They were the closest challengers and to win in Naples for the first time in however many years and to back that up with a win at home, they were two high-level games and through different circumstances, the team performed really well in both.

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“That allowed us to make sure we got top seeding and when you go into the EURO draw that becomes even more important in terms of the groups for next summer.

“There was a lot of progress for the team and I think we improved following the World Cup.

“It was nice to put that largely winning run together and then towards the end of the year to be able to look at some new players as well.

“We're always trying to drop new players into the squad anyway but we had a little bit more of a focus on that in Scotland, against Australia at home and the last two qualifiers as well.”

England entered 2023 on the back of an agonising exit from the World Cup in Qatar but Southgate stated his players’ mentality was excellent from start to finish, heading into arguably their toughest qualifier away to Italy and then another difficult opponent at home to Ukraine.

The Three Lions boss described the 2-1 win away in Naples – and the 3-1 victory in front of a partisan crowd in Scotland in September – as two of his proudest moments of the year.

The opening victory against Italy proved to be a historic night for English football, as Harry Kane surpassed Wayne Rooney as the England men’s senior team record goalscorer.
England's Harry Kane celebrates his goal against Italy to become the new record goalscorer
England's Harry Kane celebrates his goal against Italy to become the new record goalscorer

The magnitude of Kane’s achievement was reinforced in November when Southgate and his players were paying tribute to the late Sir Bobby Charlton during the build-up to the qualifiers with Malta and North Macedonia.

“Firstly it is a phenomenal record,” Southgate said, during our interview at St. George’s Park.

“We were watching the video compilations of Sir Bobby Charlton and everything he has contributed to English football. As we were showing it, you become conscious that you have a guy in the room who has broken his record already with a lot of time to go as well.

“When you're ahead of Wayne Rooney, Gary Lineker and Sir Bobby, that really is an incredible achievement, and he should be rightly proud – we're very proud of him.

“He is a fabulous captain for us. The goals are only a part of what he brings and the general level of his game is phenomenally high and I don’t think he is for stopping yet!

“He wants to keep setting those challenges and we keep setting those little challenges for him, which he keeps rising to.”

Harry Kane presenting Gareth Southgate with a broken record plaque to recognise the role the England manager played in the striker breaking Wayne Rooney's record
Harry Kane presenting Gareth Southgate with a broken record plaque to recognise the role the England manager played in the striker breaking Wayne Rooney's record

The nature of international football means the team – and as a result, their manager – are often judged based on performances during two 90-minute matches every month or so.

The win, lose and draw record, plus the goals scored and conceded, are easy to see. But what are some of the other areas where Southgate feels his team have progressed over the last 12 months?

“I would say we've been more dominant in the games we've played. We have had complete control in pretty much every match we've played this year in terms of having the ball,” Southgate said.

“The profile of the team has changed to a degree as well. Of course, Jude Bellingham has been playing a little bit further forward, which has had an impact on that, but Jude has only played five out of the ten games in 2023 so there's a lot more than just that to how we're playing.

“We've tried a few different things. We've put Trent Alexander-Arnold into midfield areas a little bit more and we’ve looking at some creative solutions. We also played Rico Lewis in a different role from left back.

“We need that adaptability. Who knows who will be available and who won't be in six months. We've got two great games in March against Brazil and Belgium to test ourselves against really top teams but we have to have that adaptability.

“We have to be prepared in case we lose people in any position and have a really clear plan of what we're going to do.”

Jude Bellingham has been showcasing his world-class talent for club and country this year
Jude Bellingham has been showcasing his world-class talent for club and country this year

The week before Southgate sat down for the interview it was confirmed England had moved up to third in the world rankings for just the third time since the classifications came into place in 1992.

The former defender believes the Three Lions’ occupation of a top-five spot during the last five years highlights his team’s consistency, level of performance and recognises the fact they have been beating the top nations more regularly in recent times.

Southgate was quick to acknowledge the critical roles played by all of the FA staff working tirelessly in the background, not just the first team coaching and medical teams who you may see regularly on your screens.

The 53-year-old used the example of the operations staff who book the team’s travel and highlighted other aspects fans may not immediately think of, like the IT department.

“A lot of these areas maybe fall into the category of ‘nobody notices what you do unless it goes wrong’,” he said.

“We have people who are excellent at their job, but are also team players who are happy to work behind the scenes – they're not looking for the profile – and all of those areas and those members of staff are invaluable for us.”

Gareth Southgate presenting Rico Lewis with his legacy cap
Gareth Southgate presenting Rico Lewis with his legacy cap

The year ended with the draw for EURO 2024, where because of topping their qualifying group, England were in pot 1 and therefore avoided many of the other favourites for the tournament.

Since being placed in Group C alongside Denmark, Serbia and Slovakia, Southgate and other members of the FA staff have visited the team’s base camp out in Germany, continued their planning around logistical issues and stepped up their in-depth analysis of their pool opponents.

Southgate stressed the importance of ‘never standing still in football’, highlighting how what had served him so well during his first England senior team tournament in Russia 2018 may not work now.

The former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender is relishing the chance to face the two teams directly below England in the world rankings in Brazil (fourth) and Belgium (fifth) in March.

Southgate has always sought out difficult matches, opting to face Germany and France during his first year in charge, and believes ‘the only way to improve and learn as a team is to play the biggest games possible’.

Once the March fixtures are out of the way, the focus will then turn to finalising England’s squad for EURO 2024, with the added complication of domestic and European finals potentially impacting the availability of some of his players for the team’s preparation camps.

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But the manager cannot wait to lead his side into a major tournament close to home, saying: “This competition will be the first time in six years where so many more fans can travel to the tournament which means the dynamic is going to be completely different.

“The numbers we'll have in the stadiums, the support we'll have on the ground, plus all the other countries who are close to Germany too, means there will be so many fans who can travel to watch their teams play, which means we are set for a hugely exciting tournament and a great festival of football that everybody's looking forward to.”

This will be Southgate’s fourth major tournament as England men’s senior team manager, following on from a World Cup semi-final in Russia 2018, finishing runners-up at EURO 2020 and impressing at the 2022 World Cup before just being edged out in the round of 16 by eventual finalists France.

Southgate has always been a fiercely proud Englishman, also representing the Three Lions at three major tournaments as a player on his way to collecting 57 caps, and leading out his country is something he still doesn’t take for granted.

“It is an absolute honour to manage England,” Southgate said, when asked if he was still loving life as the Three Lions boss after seven years.

“I played for Terry Venables and I saw some brilliant interviews with him being rerun recently about the privilege of the England job and him talking about big nights and managing big players, and that is what the job gives you.

Gareth Southgate thanked the England fans
Gareth Southgate thanked the England fans

“You have the chance to lead your country and you have the chance, and the responsibility, to try to win major tournaments.

“I think we have improved the team and we've learned from the last tournament again – we have pushed on again as a team.

“I'm very happy with how this year has gone and yes, I do love this job. We have a good group of players to work with and a fantastic group of staff as well, which makes it possible to create the right environment for the players.

“We are all really looking forward to an exciting year ahead.”

And when asked if he had a final message for the England fans, he added: “I want to say thank you for everyone's support throughout this year. I think it's been a successful year in terms of the results, qualification, performances and the individuals who have emerged.

“It has been a really good year of progress and we are determined to do the same again next year.

“We are pleased to see that everyone is as excited as we are about next summer’s tournament because that is what we want to create: we want to create a team that people are excited to watch and are excited about what is possible.”