'What we are trying to build was apparent for everyone tonight', says Southgate
Gareth Southgate reacts to England's 7-0 win over North Macedonia at Old Trafford
By Southgate’s own admission, there was the possibility some players might not have approached these two UEFA EURO 2024 qualifiers with the same level of intensity as previous matches, with some arriving in camp after ‘two weeks on the beach’ and others returning to St. George’s Park less than a week after lifting European trophies.
But instead of a drop in standards, England produced one of their most impressive performances in recent memory at Old Trafford as they comfortably beat a North Macedonia side who have proven they can compete with some of the best teams in Europe on their day.
Southgate said: “For the players to have the mentality they have to work, at the late stage of this monster of all seasons, there was every excuse to do that and they've not done that.
"There were boys coming back from the biggest week of their lives professionally. We had boys who had two weeks on the beach and could have approached that differently, but I think what we are trying to build was apparent for everyone tonight.”
Southgate highlighted Jordan Henderson as an example of the superb standards and work rate the senior players set within the squad.
And the head coach also recognised the important role played by the Old Trafford crowd.
He said: "It’s really pleasing. I thought there was a fabulous atmosphere in the stadium before the game and that gave everybody a huge lift.
“It was a brilliant night to play football – the weather was good, the pitch was immaculate, the crowd were buzzing.
"What pleased me the most was that every time we lost the ball the hunger to win it back really set the tone for the performance.
“Then the quality of the play was good, and the finishing was ruthless.”
This time last year, England had just lost 4-0 to Hungary in the Nations League at Molineux in Wolverhampton, with some supporters expressing their anger towards Southgate from the stands.
With a further 1-0 loss to Italy following in September, England’s second-half fightback against Germany in their final match before the World Cup proved to be an important morale boost ahead of the tournament in Qatar.
The Three Lions would ultimately exit the World Cup at the quarter-final stage against France but the players performed well during the competition and the levels have continued to be high since.
Southgate said: "It's a group of players and staff that's a privilege to lead and our performances since the World Cup have been impeccable.
“I think we're in a sweet spot where we were happy with what we did but we had a hunger because we weren't satisfied with where we got to.”
He continued: “It was a tough year [last year]. If we think back a year to the result [against Hungary] and the reception that we got [at Wolves] and then in September and the pressure that we felt, the different feeling around the team.
"But you have to go through those things and that's what brings you closer as a group.
“Nights like this are great and you enjoy it but they are possible because of what we have been through on other nights – that's part of being a team."
Southgate’s decision to opt for Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford in the two attacking positions alongside captain Harry Kane proved correct against North Macedonia, as their pace and direct running were one of the catalysts for victory.
All three scored, with Rashford unplayable in the first half and Saka grabbing a hat-trick, but Southgate was quick to highlight the Three Lions enjoy different types of attacking players who will all be needed.
He said: "I think everything depends on the opposition and what status our players are in.
“Those three [Rashford, Kane, Saka] have had exceptional seasons with their clubs and we felt tonight it would be more transitional, there would be more space and the speed of Bukayo and Marcus would be decisive.
“But we have different options with Phil [Foden] and Jack [Grealish] and others that aren't here. You need that competition.
“You're not always going to have virtually everybody available, as we did this time. But it's great to have those different options.”
Saka’s hat-trick was his first as a professional and the joy of his team-mates and staff after the third goal was clear to see, as one of the Three Lions’ most popular players left Old Trafford with the match ball.
Southgate said: "All the credit is with [Bukayo]. He works incredibly hard – he's talented, he's humble.
“He's hugely popular with all the players and all of the staff and I have to say his finishing has been like that all week.
“We weren't surprised by the first one, that's how he's been all week – we hadn't seen the second one coming!”
Hear from Bukayo Saka