The Three Lions injected hope, excitement and enthusiasm into the nation over the summer, with recent tournament failings made up for in a splendid run to the World Cup semi-finals.
Those weeks in Russia will live long in the memory, but even during the tournament Southgate regularly warned about the work still needed – and Saturday was a stark illustration of that.
Spain may have bowed out in the World Cup last 16 but showed the benefits of a long-established identity and kind of creativity sorely lacking in England’s midfield.
The 2-1 Wembley defeat was an inauspicious start to the Nations League and underlined the distance that needs making up to the world’s best.
Asked if England can close the gap before the next European Championships, Southgate said: “Very difficult to say. I think we’ve got some players who can and have shown tonight they can perform at that level, and there’s some that are still a work in progress.
“We have got 19 matches, it’s not very long, but, in my opinion, we have got the best group of players in the country here.
“We have got some others who might come back from injury and maybe coming through from the junior ranks.
“But I think we have got to keep faith in the way we’re trying to play, otherwise we go back to what we did historically and there’s no way I believe we’ll ever be a top team if we do that.
“So, we are going to be brave enough to stick to our principles, and just get better at what we’re doing and identify how we improve.
“But that is not going to be an easy task because you can see the level of the top teams.
“I said right across the summer, we’re under no illusions about that but also we’re prepared for that challenge.”
Saul Niguez and Rodrigo did the damage on Saturday evening, when Marcus Rashford had opened the scoring.
Substitute Danny Welbeck saw a stoppage-time leveller wrongly ruled out, meaning England head into Tuesday’s friendly against Switzerland reeling from three successive defeats in all competitions for the first time since 1988.
A real privilege to meet courageous Ben and an incredibly proud moment to receive the World Cup golden boot. All focus now on the bigger, team prize in 2020. 🦁🦁🦁 #ThreeLions #England pic.twitter.com/OfIWnkCMok— Harry Kane (@HKane) 9 September 2018
Southgate plans to rotate his side at the King Power Stadium in Leicester and intends to bring in reinforcements from the Under-21s squad.
The earlier withdrawal from the squad of Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling leaves the attacking areas short, while a question mark remains over Rashford.
Luke Shaw left the field on a stretcher against Spain after a heavy fall but said he was “doing fine”.
“We need to asses over the weekend, but I think it’s likely we’ll need to call some players in,” Southgate said.
“We’ll probably look to do that from the Under-21s, but we just need to see positionally where we stand on Sunday morning.
“Marcus was just feeling something. So, again, he’s one we’ll assess, and we’ll have a better idea in the morning.”
The Netherlands could do without invitation to this party.
Sunday’s gala Nations League clash will illustrate the divergent paths walked by France and their crestfallen visitors since World Cup 2014.
Resurgent Louis van Gaal then led the Dutch to a shock third-placed finish. A 5-1 mauling of holders Spain that kick-started this startling run gave the future a hue of Brilliant Oranje.
Didier Deschamps’ French squad, in contrast, made little impression in Brazil and were not missed when eliminated by eventual victors Germany in the quarter-finals.
The 21-year-old duo of Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane and then Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba seemed far away from the finished article. Head coach Didier Deschamps’ conservative methods caused worries that successes to match those from his playing days would not follow.
Only the most-optimistic members of the Les Bleus faithful and gloomy sections of the Netherlands support could have predicted what happened next.
The summer of 2014 represented the modern zenith for one nation and an invaluable formative experience for the other.
Ticker tape and cheers will greet the home players when they take to the pitch at a grateful Stade de France – the same arena so deflated by final defeat at Euro 2016. This will be a 90-minute celebration of a joyous nation’s triumph at World Cup 2018.
For the Netherlands, one of the sport’s premier nations has not kicked a ball at a tournament since July 2014’s 3-0 mauling of deflated hosts Brazil in the third-place play-off. Ex-Feyenoord and Everton boss Ronald Koeman is the fourth man entrusted since then to resuscitate a national side on life support.
This is a storyline detailed by production lines: one that has continued to churn out elite talent at a precocious rate and another that requires a revitalising result to evidence theirs has not ground to an alarming halt.
France sent out the second-youngest squad this summer in Russia. An estimated collective valuation of €1.2 billion (Dh5bn) was the highest at the event.
Pogba had become the then most-expensive player in history when returned to Manchester United for £89 million (Dh424m) in August 2016. Monaco guaranteed a £166m (Dh856.3m) payment from Paris Saint-Germain last February for teenage striker Kylian Mbappe.
Forward Antoine Griezmann had appeared cheap at €100m (Dh425.1m) when Barcelona attempted to pay his release clause from Atletico Madrid.
Only three members of the 23-man squad – Mbappe, Juventus battler Blaise Matuidi and PSG goalkeeper Alphonse Areola – were graduates of the national academy at Clairefontaine. But this body’s philosophy is felt at nearly every French club.
Coaches trained there go back to teams from Lyon to Monaco, Bordeaux to Guingamp, and help transform promising youngsters into elite footballers better than nearly all other countries.
Only two changes were made by Deschamps for the 23-man roster selected to meet the Dutch – both caused by injuries to Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and reserve Steve Mandanda of Marseille.
A sweep of the Under-21s shows the system’s efficacy cannot be questioned by Deschamps’ continuity. Lyon midfielders Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombele, plus RB Leipzig’s teenage defender Dayot Upamecano, look poised to come in when needed.
The Dutch matched this reputation for much of the 50 years that followed Johan Cruyff startlingly bringing Rinus Michels’ reworked theory of ‘Total Voetbal’ to life at Ajax.
It’s continued prominence appeared apparent when the nation were beaten in World Cup 2010’s final and made the semis four years later.
Vaunted attackers Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben were the fulcrums of this generation.
A once-bountiful talent pool critically went dry as they aged.
Churning Netherlands managers has not yet cured systemic issues.
Previous great hopes like Royston Drenthe and Ibrahim Afellay fell by the wayside. Besiktas forward Ryan Babel’s presence in Koeman’s selection causes alarm.
Forward Memphis Depay is rebuilding his career at Lyon after flopping at Manchester United. Goalkeeper Jasper Cillesen warms the bench at Barcelona and crippling knee injuries see midfielder Kevin Strootman at Marseille rather than a true giant.
From this nadir, however, shoots of recovery can be found.
The Ajax trio of 19-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt and 21-year-old midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek are coveted across Europe.
Georginio Wijnaldum has started 2018/19 in superb form for Liverpool – a club which paid a world-record £75m (Dh369.8m) fee for peerless centre-back Virgil van Dijk.
These players possess the ability to inspire a gatecrashing of France’s festivities. If they do, glory could lie ahead.
The Netherlands last failed to make successive tournaments in 1986. They, of course, then did rather well at Euro 1988…
Kasper Schmeichel has owned up to a “difficult week” for Danish football that almost saw Denmark field a team of part-time players against Wales in the UEFA Nations League.
Denmark fielded lower league and futsal players in the 3-0 friendly defeat to Slovakia on Wednesday following a dispute over the players’ commercial rights.
The row was eventually settled on Thursday, allowing Denmark to recall the likes of Leicester goalkeeper Schmeichel and Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen for Sunday’s game against Wales in Aarhus.
“I think for us it’s about winning the game and playing well,” Schmeichel said at Denmark’s pre-match press conference.
“I am sure everyone will get behind us. It’s been a difficult week, but that’s life.
“It’s just about getting on with it now and we will be ready.”
The Danish trio presented at the pre-match press conference – manager Age Hareide, captain Simon Kjaer and Schmeichel – were reluctant to talk about the affair which had turned Denmark into the laughing stock of international football.
But Hareide said the episode meant his squad, which reached the last 16 of the World Cup in Russia and are ranked ninth by FIFA, had been limited to only two training sessions before the Wales game.
“It is a little less than we normally have, but it’s OK,” Hareide said.
“There are players here who have been here for two years, so I am not too worried about that.
“All the players are fit and experienced. There are no worries about that. No excuses.”
Wales have had their own problems before the game after thrashing the Republic of Ireland 4-1 in their Nations League opener.
Ryan Giggs’ squad were delayed from leaving Cardiff Airport because of a technical fault with their plane and were not due to arrive in Aarhus until the early hours of Sunday morning.
But Schmeichel admits he has been impressed by Wales under new boss Giggs, a former Manchester United team-mate of his father Peter.
“Look at the last game and you can see the flair and spark that they play with,” he said.
“It’s very similar to the DNA he inherited at Manchester United and it will be very interesting to see what he can bring.
“He’s got a very talented squad with Wales. It is something that Gary Speed started, Chris Coleman worked really well, and now Ryan is putting his own stamp on it.
“Gareth Bale is obviously a world class player, but it would be disrespectful to focus on just him because Wales is full of very good players.”