England were pushed to their “absolute limit” yet still fell short in France – a gap to the elite that does not surprise manager Gareth Southgate.
Parachuted into the hotseat in September, a promising four-match interim stint persuaded the Football Association to hand their Under-21s boss the senior job on a permanent basis.
Southgate has been making steady progress behind the scenes ever since, although the challenge ahead of him was made clearer at the Stade de France on Tuesday evening.
Harry Kane opened the scoring with a beautiful team goal as England looked lively in attack, but out of possession they were toyed with as a young, athletic French team won 3-2 in Paris.
It would likely have been worse was it not for Raphael Varane’s video-assisted sending off at the start of the second half, with Southgate admitting the gap to the likes of France, Germany and Spain is as big as he envisaged.
“No (it’s not bigger than I thought), if I’m honest,” the England boss said. “I think it’s absolutely what I thought.
“We’ve been competitive in all three games for long periods of time, but I think we’ve had to play at our absolute limit to stay in all three of those matches. I think that has shown in the latter stages of all of those games.
“The pleasing thing is that the players are taking on board tactical information.
“The three games have provided a different test.
“With Spain, it was their ability to keep the ball better than us, that we had to keeping chasing and chasing and chasing.
“Today is slightly different because I think we kept the ball as well if not better than France for long periods, but physically the demands that their players impose on you meant that we had problems with that.
“I think the longer the game went on that led to tiredness and I am sure that is one of the reasons for the mistake for the third goal.
“In reality I am not surprised. Those teams are the very best.
“We haven’t in the last few years got anywhere near any of those teams when it’s come to tournaments and finals and the rest of it, so that’s why we need to play them.
“We need to see the reality of where we are, you’ve got to test yourself against the best because otherwise it can mask where you might be as a team.
“Difficult to sit here and feel positive about much on the back of the last 20 minutes, but I think our work with the ball and the way that we are able to hurt is encouraging.
“The other side is it has to be challenged by playing against top sides.”
England impressed in March’s narrow 1-0 defeat in Germany, having been held to a 2-2 draw by Spain at Wembley after conceding twice late on last November.
The Stade de France encounter was the most concerning of those friendlies from a Three Lions perspective, with more high-profile friendlies lined up if and when World Cup qualification is wrapped up.
“One of the reasons for playing Germany, Spain and France is that you have to get everything spot on to be able to get a result,” Southgate added.
“If you’re a little bit out in the way you press or defend, then you get punished.
“That’s what has happened for a couple of the goals tonight. Equally we have gifted them the third with a mistake.
“But the intensity and concentration levels, and the physicality, needed to stay with these teams I think in all three matches we have just faded in the end of those games.
“We had an opportunity tonight once they had gone to 10 to readdress that by keeping the ball better and not forcing things.
“One of the disappointments in that last half hour was not to control the game and the ball and make France work and tire them out.”