Gareth Southgate proud despite latest England heartache in Nations League

Gareth Southgate is focusing on progress rather than the pain of another semi-final loss as the England manager looks to build towards Euro 2020 glory.

Netherlands' Steven Bergwijn (centre) gets away from England's Declan Rice (right) and Jadon Sancho in Guimaraes. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA
Netherlands' Steven Bergwijn (centre) gets away from England's Declan Rice (right) and Jadon Sancho in Guimaraes. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA

A year after Croatia’s extra-time comeback win at the World Cup, the Three Lions fell just short once more in the final four.

Holland responded well to Marcus Rashford’s first-half penalty and ran out 3-1 victors in extra-time as calamitous mistakes from John Stones and Ross Barkley allowed the Dutch to reach the inaugural Nations League final.

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It was another case of so close yet so far for England, but Southgate refused to let this latest semi-final disappointment cloud their fine work.

England head coach Gareth Southgate consoles John Stones. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA

Put to the England manager that the key thing was to use the experience of Moscow and Guimaraes when looking ahead to Euro 2020, he said: “Yeah, the players are hugely motivated.

“They’re incredibly disappointed as I know the fans will be, but the levels of performance getting to two semi-finals is beyond where they’ve been before.

“I know everybody will speak about our history, but for these players they’ve had an 18 months that is beyond so many teams over the last couple of decades.

“I am proud to be their manager. I am proud to support them and I’ve got to stand by them in this month.”

Southgate vowed to support Stones after his error, but it would not be a surprise to the see the defender on the bench tomorrow for the third-place play-off against Switzerland.

The England manager is surely going to make sweeping changes when they return to action in Guimaraes, where the squad was training or doing recovery work yesterday morning.

“I think we were talking before the match as a group of staff about the incredible games England have been involved in, in tournaments, and the twists and turns, so much happens in those big games that it’s hard to take it all in,” Southgate continued.

“I thought it was a really high level of opponent, who posed us problems in possession without creating too many clear-cut chances early in the game.

“We managed to solve a lot of the problems they posed. They pressed us well.

“Throughout the game, we made too many mistakes in our third of the pitch and partly that was a consequence of their good pressure but partly that was just errors by us.

“So, incredibly proud that the players have given absolutely everything. It’s very painful for them, it’s very painful for everybody, but it’s a night where we would have learned so much, some individuals really stood out.

“People like Declan Rice haven’t been in that sort of environment before, Ross Barkley I thought was really outstanding, Raheem (Sterling) too.”

Southgate faces the unenviable challenge of rousing the troops for tomorrow’s match before the squad jet home and then away on their summer breaks.

But this missed opportunity to win a first senior trophy in 53 years is likely to play on their minds, so, too, perhaps the fact a midfield dynamo again played a key role in their downfall.

Last year, Luka Modric ran the show as Croatia won their World Cup semi-final and on Thursday the man-of-the match was Frenkie De Jong as he pulled the strings for the Dutch.

“I think the key is that we have over the last two years tried to get the very best performances from the players we have,” said Southgate when that correlation was put to him.

“We’ve improved enormously as a team. We’ve progressed as a team.

“We could have been playing qualifying matches somewhere else, but we weren’t, we were playing in another semi-final.

“It makes it more painful, but it was more important to be in a game like this ahead of next summer as well, because that’s the level of the teams.

“At the moment, against some of the best teams we’ve not been able to get over the line in those two semi-finals, but we just have to keep working and adapting and we’ve done that over the course of this competition.

“Some young players have had tremendous experiences.

“So, it’s been hugely worthwhile for us. But, of course, we wanted to come here and win the trophy and we haven’t been able to do that.”