Gareth Southgate wants England to go into next summer’s Euros with momentum and is targeting an unbeaten run all the way through to Germany.
Having wrapped up progress to next year’s finals with two games to spare, Friday’s forgettable 2-0 victory against Malta all-but assured their place among the top seeds at the December 2 draw.
England cruised to qualification from what had looked to be a potentially tricky pool and Southgate wants his side to end 2023 with a bang as they round off Group C away to North Macedonia on Monday.
But with Euro 2024 glory their stated ambition, the former defender wants his players to keep their foot on the gas.
“We’ve had a really good calendar year and we want to finish it well,” the England manager said ahead of the trip to Skopje. “Simple as that.
“We should be aiming to go, if we can, into the tournament unbeaten. We’ve got some tough games coming ahead.
“I mean, I’m a bit loathed to say that because then you start looking for draws when you want to go and win matches as well, so I want to get the messaging right on that.
“But, you know, it’s good for us to be away from Wembley again, a challenging environment because that’s what we’re going to be in next summer.”
England have not lost a match since last December’s galling 2-1 defeat to eventual runners-up France in their World Cup quarter-final clash in Qatar.
Les Bleus are among their main rivals for silverware next summer, with Southgate’s side stepping up preparations for the Euros with challenging March friendlies against Brazil and Belgium at Wembley.
Both opponents will provide stern tests for a team that Southgate says cannot afford to fall short of the level “they need to be at” like they were against Mediterranean minnows Malta.
“The teams we’ve got in March, we wouldn’t get away with it,” Southgate said. “And the players just would have a different level of motivation (compared to against Malta).
“This week was always going to be difficult. We’ve already qualified, the players are in the middle of a load of matches.
“We’re trying to look after a few physically with the team selection, so you’re making changes that, had we needed to win tonight to qualify, might be different.
“So, yeah, the whole week has been a little bit like that – couldn’t really get the players on the pitch until Wednesday and as a consequence we were flat. I accept that.
“That’s where we were but I’m not going to get into the players about that. I know why and they’ve won another game of football.
“It could have been by more. Not quite sure why the third (from Declan Rice) was disallowed, but there we are.”
As frustrating as Friday night was at Wembley, England remain well placed for silverware in Southgate’s fourth – and quite possibly final – major tournament at the helm.
There is no time to waste with chances to work together limited, plus the fact Monday’s trip to Skopje looks likely to be their final match on foreign soil until the Euros get under way in June.
North Macedonia are expected to be far better than in June’s 7-0 Old Trafford annihilation and Southgate has a number of things to consider before settling on his side for the Group C finale.
“A lot of our decision-making is physical as much as anything at the moment, so it’s a strange thing,” he said.
“Probably if you’ve still got to qualify there’s a different focus on the games and everybody’s happy and understands their players have got to play.
“You’re not subconsciously thinking about ‘should we be pushing players out for another game?’
“So, we need to look at where we are after this game in terms of any knocks and bumps.
“We’ve got some fresh players to come in. We want to get the balance of the team right and then assess whether there are certain things we want to see and learn from Monday night’s game as well.”