Four months on from ending a challenging 2020, another coronavirus-complicated year gets under way with Thursday’s clash against the world’s bottom-ranked side before Group I fixtures against Albania and Poland.
Southgate will be fine-tuning for this summer’s rearranged European Championship during a triple-header that he hopes can provide a solid platform for their bid to reach Qatar next year.
The 50-year-old gave little away about selection ahead of England’s first World Cup-related match since their 2018 run to the semi-finals, with the former defender focusing on a professional performance at Wembley.
“Look, any team can score at any time in a game,” said Southgate, referencing San Marino’s shock early goal in a match England recovered to win 7-1 in 1993. “You can have random incidents like what happened that night.
“I remember watching that game as a youngster, so we’ve got to focus on the (fact that the) majority of the game we’re going to have the ball.
“We want a positive performance, where our players enjoy having the ball but that we’re ruthless with it and that we have the movement and the creativity to go and create chances and to score goals. So, you can look at it in any different way. You can go into the game apprehensive because of what might go wrong. But we’ve got to be positive and say ‘it’s a game you should enjoy’.
“You don’t get too many games where at Wembley you can go out, you know you’re going to have a lot of the ball and you’ve got to make sure that you use it well.”
While Thursday’s qualifier against San Marino will surely go down as a simple stepping stone towards Qatar, it will be a landmark moment as Southgate becomes the first person to represent England 50 times as both player and manager.
“I think when you’re a young player, my only dream was to play for England,” the 57-cap former Three Lions centre-back said.
“To have been involved as a player with England for nine seasons and then to have the privilege of being involved with the FA and the junior teams for a period, and then now 50 games with the seniors, it’s been an absolute honour.
“I suppose it’ll be something I think about more when everything’s finished, really. There’ll be numbers up on boards somewhere that will be there.
“It’s a nice landmark but of course my focus really is the team and making sure that we get this World Cup qualification off to a good start.”
Southgate has a 24-strong squad to choose from against San Marino, with Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford the only absentees.
“They’re both doubtful (for this triple-header),” he said. “I’d say Marcus is more doubtful than Bukayo at the moment but we’re going to assess them.
“Marcus has been very keen to be with us. He obviously wasn’t with us so much in the autumn so I think he’s been keen to be part of the group and get with us.
“Bukayo has needed to have some sort of investigations at the club first so hasn’t been able to join us yet, but hopefully he will be in the next couple of days.”
Player wellbeing will be at the forefront of Southgate’s mind when making his selections over the coming week, while the England boss has suggested he may vary formations having used a five-man backline in the autumn.
“We’re looking at the short-term, the mid-term and the long-term with the team – what might be possible, what will be the best way of approaching different games,” he said. “I think we feel that we need to be tactically flexible.
“I think we’ve been that way over the last three or four years, really, we’ve played various different systems at different times.
“With a club, you probably have more continuity, you recruit to a system of play. With international football, you want your best players on the pitch in the positions where they can be most effective.
“I think modern players are very adaptable, they can switch systems very quickly, they can take on concepts very well. That’s part of being a top player in the modern day, you see with the clubs they have to adapt very quickly and they will be able to do that us as well.”
England midfielder Mason Mount admits he has had a “rollercoaster” ride at Chelsea since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as manager – but has taken plenty of lessons from the situation.
“It has been a bit of a rollercoaster the last couple of months,” said Mount.
“But it is valuable experience for me and I have learned a lot more. I’d probably say it is five positions I have played in the game but it is all good experiences for me to learn. I haven’t had something like that in a game but I am versatile and I can change positions – that is what the modern game is about.”
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