Manager Gareth Southgate said England have “no illusions” as to their standing in international football after finishing fourth at the World Cup in Russia.
Belgium won Saturday’s third-place playoff in Saint Petersburg with goals from Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard to deny England their best finish at a World Cup on foreign soil.
“We are very proud of what we’ve done, but we’re under no illusions as a team as to where we stand,” said Southgate, after his side lost to Belgium for the second time in the tournament.
“We finished in the final four but we’re not a top-four team yet, we’ve never hidden behind that. Against the very best teams we’ve come up short.”
England lost three of their seven matches at the tournament. Their 2-1 semi-final defeat by Croatia prevented them from reaching a first final in 52 years.
They have beaten just two countries ranked inside the world’s top 20 during Southgate’s tenure, knocking Colombia out on penalties in the last 16 while overcoming a mediocre Dutch side in a friendly.
“I felt it was important to tell the team how proud I was of what they’d done and recognise how far they’d got,” Southgate said, as England matched their fourth-place finish from 1990.
“We also recognised after the semi-final where we stood, which is exactly what we found out again today.
“We haven’t hidden in terms of where we see our progress. We haven’t hidden in terms of what we think needs to improve, but we also leave here having progressed a lot as a team.”
England’s next game is against Spain in September in their opening match of the new UEFA Nations League, a competition introduced to effectively replace international friendlies.
– ‘Evolve and improve’ –
“We now have some big fixtures in the autumn, playing the likes of Spain, Switzerland and Croatia,” Southgate said.
“They’re great opportunities for us to develop, to improve, to try things and look at players.
“We have to just constantly try to evolve and improve. We’ve done that, particularly over the last eight months, and we’ve ended up having a brilliant adventure here.”
The success of Southgate’s young squad in Russia has been greeted with a groundswell of support back home, after England’s best performance at a major competition since Euro 96.
But the 47-year-old acknowledged the need to stay grounded as England begin to switch their attention to Euro 2020, when the semi-finals and final will be played at Wembley.
“I think we’re very realistic about the level we are. We’ve had a lot of praise but also balanced with that a lot of reality as well,” he said.
“We don’t kid ourselves at all. We know exactly the areas we hope to get better and we really enjoy working with this group of players.
“We’re not in club football where we have a chequebook and can go buy new players. We have to coach and develop.”
Southgate, who replaced Sam Allardyce on a permanent basis in November 2016, has helped drastically change the perception of the England team after they were booed off following their humiliating exit to Iceland at the last European Championship.
“It’s nice we’ve reached a semi-final because that builds belief and it gives some momentum to the team,” he said.
“There’s some evidence they can have some success and what that would feel like, which I think allows the players to commit even more to the England shirt.”