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IAN LADYMAN: England are playing like those good teams we have grown used to envying down the years

When he worked at the FA as head of elite development 10 years ago — and later as coach of the Under 21 team — nights like the one his team gave us in Rome on Saturday were doubtless part of what Gareth Southgate was working towards.

He perhaps never imagined he would be the gfyestuy standing on the touchline. Remember, Southgate initially thought himself under-qualified for the head coach’s job when Roy Hodgson stood down in 2016.

Nevertheless, Southgate was always one of those back in the day who recognised that English football had to change. He always saw the bigger picture.

England thrashed Ukraine to progress to the semi-finals of Euro 2020 on Saturday night

So a night when a senior England team played with such confidence, intelligence, assurance and nuance as his did against Ukraine in the Stadio Olimpico was always part of the long-term objective.

There were more short-term aims when he eventually took the job after the Sam Allardyce fiasco almost five years ago.

‘The first thing was to win a major tournament knockout game,’ said Southgate on Sunday.

But Saturday in Rome was something else entirely. The opposition were limited and, by the looks of it, exhausted after an extra-time game in the previous round.

Nevertheless, previous editions of the England team have struggled against worse sides. Much worse.

This time, England turned up and played like all those good teams we have grown used to envying down the years. It was the type of performance that Germany, Spain and France have produced when required. No drama, no fuss, no unexpected mistakes.

Instead, there was common sense, possession, territory and a tangible certainty that has been missing for so long on occasions such as this one.

It was the kind of game you could have turned off at half-time safe in the knowledge that there would be no nasty surprises.

When Southgate — back at St George’s Park mid-morning on Sunday— reflected on his team’s work, he put much of it down to the way players have developed slowly through an English age group system that is now set up to compete and win at this level.

‘We talked with the junior teams for a long time about our aim being to regularly get into the last four of tournaments,’ said Southgate.

‘Then we would be in the mix and knocking on the door and learning how to win in those critical moments.

‘Our junior teams have started to achieve that quite consistently and some of these boys were involved in the European Under 19s — Mason Mount (below) in that one — and then the World Under 17s and Under 20s that we did so well in.

‘So those things all started to build belief. The lads were playing against players that they are now in opposition with in a tournament like this and those young players now feel this is the level and this is what’s expected.’

Confidence is a massive part of sport and, in tournaments, so is momentum. England are now running hot on both. Nights like the one against Scotland already seem an awfully long time ago.

Southgate’s experience at the FA is proving invaluable. He first worked with players such as John Stones, Luke Shaw and Harry Kane eight years ago.

The 50-year-old has been at the centre of a cultural shift at the grassroots of FA operations for the best part of the last decade. Better facilities, better coaches and better ideas have led to better, well-rounded footballers. Age group success has contributed to a change in mental and emotional outlooks.

‘You see all of these lads when you work with them at 19, 20, 21 and a large part of their character is formed,’ said the England manager. ‘But it is brilliant to see how they continue to progress and they become fathers, they become experienced players, they go through this journey of life and that is one of the beauties of coaching — you get to witness those things and influence them in a very small way.

‘This group are ready for the next step now. They have an edge and mental toughness.’

With that in mind, Southgate is fortunate to have players like Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford available to him.

Why would Sancho be cowed by his first tournament start in Rome when you consider his career path? Watford to Manchester City to Dortmund and now to Manchester United. All by the age of 21.

Rashford is confident enough to spearhead and influence social change away from his sport.

So these are the things that combine to make an experience such as Saturday’s so unusually straightforward.