Gareth Southgate says England will go into the World Cup knockout stage in better shape and with more belief than in their 2018 run to the semi-finals.
Southgate’s side powered into the last 16 as Group B winners after a second-half blitz inspired their 3-0 victory over Wales in Doha on Tuesday.
Marcus Rashford scored twice, either side of Phil Foden’s strike, to book a last-16 clash with Senegal on Sunday.
After reaching the knockout phase as group runners-up to Belgium in the last World Cup in Russia four years ago, Southgate believes England are far more battle-hardened and confident this time around.
“I think there is a different mentality. More belief. Our objectives are different. In Russia, we were just thinking, ‘Can we win a knockout game?’ Now there is more confidence and more experience of knockout matches,” Southgate said.
England ended their long run of failure in major tournament knockout matches when they beat Colombia on penalties in the last 16 in Russia, sparking a run to the last four that culminated in defeat by Croatia.
That was a breakthrough moment for England after years in the doldrums before Southgate took charge in 2016, with the Three Lions going on to finish as European Championship runners-up last year.
Ending their wait for a first major trophy since Bobby Moore lifted the 1966 World Cup remains England’s holy grail and Southgate’s men look capable of fulfilling the country’s ambition.
After a drab goalless draw against the United States, England swept aside Wales with the same ruthless finishing they showed in a 6-2 rout of Iran in their group opener.
With England reestablished as one of the leading contenders to win the World Cup, Southgate said his squad are in a good place.
The positives vibes among Southgate’s players were clear to see as they laughed and joked with their families in the stands at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium after vanquishing Wales.
‘People have to deliver’
“We are pleased the first objective is achieved. The spirit of the team is good,” Southgate said.
“We have got most of the team on the pitch which is fabulous for the dynamic. And no yellow cards which is good.
“To this point we’re really pleased and, of course, the big business starts now really.”
England will be firm favourites to beat Group A runners-up Senegal, who are without injured talisman Sadio Mane.
But Southgate has some intriguing selection dilemmas to resolve before the showdown at the Al Bayt Stadium.
Rashford and Foden both impressed as the wide players in England’s three-man attack after Southgate dropped Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling.
After falling out of form last season, Manchester United forward Rashford is back to his best and already has three goals in the tournament.
Manchester City playmaker Foden proved a point to Southgate with his influential display after being given only 19 minutes of playing time in the first two games.
Now Southgate has to decide whether to keep faith with the pair, which would be slightly harsh on Saka — in fine fettle for Arsenal this season and one of England’s better players over the last year — but less so on the out of form Sterling.
“You need goals from all areas. It is a problem for opposition if the threat is coming from other areas of the pitch. It is competition for places and people have to deliver,” Southgate said.
Jordan Henderson and Kyle Walker could also retain their places after delivering more against Wales than Mason Mount and Kieran Trippier had managed in the previous two games.
“You want those sorts of decisions. We need strength in depth. You just never know when we’re going to need that depth,” Southgate said.