Boasting maximum points from March’s Group I triple-header, the Three Lions turned their attention back to making next year’s finals less than two months on from the heartbreaking Euro 2020 final loss to Italy.
England showed no sign of an emotional hangover as they secured back-to-back 4-0 victories against Hungary and Andorra, before travelling to Poland for what was always going to be their toughest assignment.
Harry Kane’s 30-yard strike put them on course for a victory that would have all but sealed World Cup qualification, only for substitute Damian Szymanski’s stoppage-time header to make it 1-1 in Warsaw.
“We knew that if we could win the game then we were pretty much in Qatar,” Southgate said after the draw at the sold-out Stadion Narodowy.
“That isn’t the case, we’ve still got some work to do. We could’ve been in an even stronger position, so that is a disappointment but I can’t fault what the players have given over that period and the way they’ve responded to the summer.”
The draw allowed Albania to move second and cut the gap to four points, but bookmakers’ odds of 1/100 on England topping Group I shows it is surely a case of when rather than if they qualify.
Their biggest tests are now out of the way, with trips to Andorra and San Marino – ranked 156th and 209th in the world respectively – all that remain along with home matches against Hungary and Albania.
There is little chance of Southgate allowing complacency to seep in, but the Three Lions boss recently highlighted that they only have five international meet-ups left before the 2022 World Cup gets under way.
Asked if he would like to try different things against Andorra and Hungary next month with that in mind, the England boss said: “We’ve still got to qualify for a World Cup and we have to respect that process first and foremost.
“I think we’ve always taken that view that we’ve put a lot of young players into our squad over three or four years, the last three especially.
“But you have to respect the matches as well and you have to make sure that we get the balance of those two things right. If we can do both, we’ll definitely try and do that.”
The benefits of experimentation are clear to see from the England squad that reached the Euro 2020 final – a group Southgate said was never going to be wildly different to that selected for September’s crucial matches.
But the 51-year-old has made plenty of bold calls during his five years in charge and handed 12 players their debut in last autumn’s fixtures alone, including Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden.
Kalvin Phillips was another among that cluster and was recently crowned England’s player of the year thanks to his impressive midfield performances alongside Declan Rice.
“He’s been excellent and I thought the card was harsh, really, although I need to see it back,” Southgate said of the Leeds player, who was booked early in Wednesday’s draw in Warsaw.
“The way he has taken to international football, well, it hasn’t surprised us because what we’d seen with Leeds even in the Championship, we felt could convert into our team. We felt that he could play an important role with us.
“But of course to play in the enormity of the matches that he did in the summer and play as well as he did is a massive credit to him.
“He’s a very, very good player and he’s been a really important part of this. I think we’re 16 games unbeaten now and he’s been a huge part of that.”