Gareth Southgate revelled in an “incredible feeling” but warned that England are still developing after beating Sweden 2-0 to secure a first World Cup semifinal appearance in 28 years.
Harry Maguire and Dele Alli headed past Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen in each half and Jordan Pickford made several crucial saves as England produced a convincing performance in Samara just four days after being forced to play 120 gruelling minutes and participate in a tense penalty shootout against Colombia.
Few outside the England camp predicted such a remarkable run in Russia, and after the match Southgate was in no mood to downplay the fact that his team are now within one game of a first World Cup final since 1966.
“We knew it was going to be such a different game after having extra time and penalties against Colombia with all the emotion and the energy,” he told BBC Sport.
“We had to withstand a lot of physical pressure but the resilience of the team was crucial. We knew we would have the majority of the ball and it was a case of breaking them down because Sweden are a really well organised team.
“Over the years we have underestimated them. I’m really pleased for Dele [Alli]. He is best at making those runs for the goal and he can finish. I’m really pleased for him because that’s some drought for him.
“We don’t know who we play yet. Russia in Moscow would be an incredible game to be involved in. Let’s see. I hope everyone at home enjoys tonight because it’s not often that happens. It is an incredible feeling.”
Southgate credited his team’s success on their willingness to come together to form a cohesive unit.
“That collective [spirit] is why we are here,” Southgate said at his news conference. “To get through the two games this week we needed all of that. We are not the finished article and we do not have world-class players yet, but we have young players who are prepared to be brave on the ball and have shown a real mental resilience.
“We have got to this point because our collective is so strong. We played an opponent who has a clear identity and their collectiveness has been too much for us at times in the past.”
Since coming in, the former defender and his team have looked to instil a new philosophy in the players and the coach was quick to credit these changes with England’s success in Russia.
“I think we have worked hard at establishing a clear identity,” he said. “We have an outstanding mentality in these players, a humility and recognition of where they were 18 months ago and the work needed to get to here. We have got to keep on improving as staff and as players. It isn’t about me, it is about the whole group.”
Despite reaching the semifinals, Southgate was keen to stress that his players were still developing.
“We are in the World Cup semifinals. Whether we are in the top four in the world, we still need to prove that,” he said. “We are progressing really well and we do have some good players. They need opportunities to play.
“We have played some players who are very tender years in their careers but we believe in them. In years to come they will be even better, but today was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss out on.”
Maguire’s first England goal represented the latest milestone in a meteoric rise for the defender who was playing in the Championship for Hull City two years ago but started every game for Leicester City this past season in his second full Premier League campaign.
The defender watched England from the stands at Euro 2016, and he admitted that he has not yet fully come to terms with everything he has achieved in the last two years.
“It’s a remarkable rise I have had over the last year or two,” Maguire told BBC Radio. “At the moment I’m in a bubble and maybe I’ll realise my achievement over time. It’s another massive game in the semi and one that we will have belief in.”
Wow… What a feeling! World Cup Semi Final. Bring it on 🏴🦁❤️ pic.twitter.com/VlzZx5Lo1U
— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) July 7, 2018
Maguire’s header following an Ashley Young corner gave England the lead on the half-hour.
“It was my first international goal on the biggest stage of them all,” Maguire said. “Going into a World Cup semi final, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Though it was his first international goal, Maguire has been a dangerous target man from set pieces throughout the tournament, and he credited his teammates for delivering the ball in the right areas.
“A high percentage of goals in knockout games come from set-plays and we have worked hard on them,” Maguire said. “The deliveries have been brilliant and we have managed to get our heads on them.”