Gareth Southgate enjoying England's post-World Cup 'sweet spot'

Gareth Southgate thinks the way England finished their 2022-23 shows the team has hit a "sweet spot".

Since going out of the World Cup quarter-finals in December, England have won a World Cup qualifier 2-1 in Italy, then followed up with victories over Ukraine, Malta and North Macedonia which have seen them score 13 goals without conceding.

The wins have got progressively bigger, culminating in what England manager Southgate called an "outrageous" 7-0 win over North Macedonia at Old Trafford on Monday which saw Bukayo Saka score his first professional hat-trick.

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"The scoreline is outrageous really, that wasn't really how you expected the game to be because there was no evidence Macedonia would suffer like that, no evidence the game in the end would be as straight-forward as it was and certainly in the opening 20 minutes it didn't look that way," said the former Middlesbrough manager. "It's huge credit to our senior players who set a brilliant tone this week.

"Post-World Cup I think we've hit a sweet spot where there's a hunger to go further than we've been but a confidence from the matches we've played and the ability they have. That's a good place to be.

"They've set a standard in the last four games against different sorts of opponents (in) different environments where anything can be possible.

"They've been exciting to watch, there's competition for individual places and to get into the squad and around all of that there's a brilliant feeling around the group and that creates a strong team. I think the crowd have connected with that, they were brilliant even before kick-off."

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Saka's hat-trick came in 13 minutes either side of half-time and was supplemented by two goals for Harry Kane – including his customary penalty – and one each for Marcus Rashford and Leeds-born substitute Kalvin Phillips.

SWEET SUCCESS: England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans at full-timeSWEET SUCCESS: England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans at full-time
SWEET SUCCESS: England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans at full-time

After seven goals in eight games, it was Saka who deservedly hogged the headlines. After the game Southgate revealed the Arsenal winger played despite an Achilles niggle.

"He's had it for a few weeks," revealed Southgate. "It's an injury that just needs managing but it would have been easy not to appear and when you then have probably one of the best nights of your life it's a reminder to everyone that it's worth going through those things.

"He's such a popular member of the team, so humble, he works incredibly hard and of course he's so talented. He's been finishing like that all week. It was an outstanding performance.

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"When broke into the team at Arsenal what struck us was that when the team were having a difficult time he was performing at a really high level. Then when the team was playing well he was still a key player."

Saka was able to reflect on a "perfect end to the season," which for the first time for England had a World Cup in the middle rather than at the end.

"I don’t remember the last time I scored three even at junior levels.

"It's a feeling I can't put into words. I can't describe how I'm feeling right now. I'm so happy.

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"Tonight was a really special display. We went out with me and Rashy (Rashford) down the wings. Sharp, direct. They couldn't handle us."

Trent Alexander-Arnold was again used in central midfield and created two Saka's second goal with a brilliant first-time pass minutes after half-time.

"At half-time he said to me he was going to do that pass," revealed Saka. "When I scored I was looking for him to thank him. I didn't have to break my stride.

"It's been a really long season. It's the end of the season now. I couldn't have ended it in a better way. Time to relax and have a break."

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North Macedonia coach Blagoja Milevski was left to rue the way his side collapsed to their biggest defeat having kept England at bay for 29 minutes.

"We had our tactical ideas before the game and we did fulfil them at the beginning but the first two goals came as a result of the quality of the opponent," he said. "After that, our game went downhill and the quality of the opponent was obvious after that."