No-one can accuse Gareth Southgate of shying away from expectation. In May he said his “aim” was to win next year’s European Championships; this week he rammed that message home in a meeting with the players.

After years of being told the weight of expectation and an arrogance of assumption was weighing England down - and at the same time, curiously making them seem overbearing - now it is being embraced.

This may be Southgate’s last campaign as England manager. Even if he triumphs in the final in Berlin in July 14 and brings home the first major trophy for the men’s team in 58 years he might still decide to walk. It would be the ultimate mic-drop moment.

Southgate has hinted victory could persuade him to stay but what is more certain is if England fall short, yet again, he will not be in charge for the campaign to the next World Cup in 2026.

So the clock is ticking. The physical clock at St George’s Park, which counted down the days to win the Qatar World Cup, has gone and has not been replaced. But time is marching on. Germany next summer will be Southgate’s fourth finals and it will be either the peak of a cycle or the end of one.

England went out in the World Cup quarter-finals – in essence the round once regarded as ‘par’ – having reached a semi-final and a final under Southgate. But in Qatar they lost to France, who proved to be the second-best team at that tournament and will challenge the Three Lions for favourite status in Germany.

What is so remarkable as England prepare to face Ukraine in their latest Euro qualifier in Poland, with a perfect record of four wins from four in Group C, including an historic victory away to Italy, is the fact they are in such rude health.

The team that kicks off next summer is all but nameable now, with a couple of key question marks. But Southgate is unlikely to look beyond Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Luke Shaw, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane.

That is effectively eight nailed-on starters with two of them – Kane and Bellingham – the biggest and most exciting names, at present, in the Bundesliga and La Liga after their blockbuster moves to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

England have a £105million midfielder in Rice and, in Saka, a player who would probably go for even more money.

There is already another £100million player in Jack Grealish and England are so blessed among the forwards, with Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford, Manchester United’s biggest asset, and even James Maddison that Southgate resisted the urge of recalling Raheem Sterling.

There are problem areas – a lack of depth at left-back is a concern, but not so much as the absence of strength in such a vital area as midfield pivot which has meant keeping faith in Kalvin Phillips despite him having not played a single minute for Manchester City.

The question is: who will be the third midfielder alongside Rice and Bellingham and, if more defensive or attacking, what does that say?

For sure, Phillips position is unsustainable as is, and this amounts to Southgate’s other big decision, the centre of defence. If John Stones was fit it would have been illogical to pick Harry Maguire. He has put his England career at risk by not agreeing a move away from Manchester United.

Finally credible challengers are emerging and although Levi Colwill will probably be Maguire’s biggest rival by next year, with Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori also in the frame, do not discount the candidacy of Lewis Dunk who may actually be the most compatible partner for Stones.

Neither should the togetherness of this England squad be under-estimated. There was another significant show of commitment with Shaw and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who may push Phillips out of the picture, attending a team meeting at SGP on Monday despite being injured.

It was the same from Bellingham in June, while he too was rehabbing, and long gone are the days of players withdrawing at the drop of a hat.

The counter argument to this is that it has become too cosy under Southgate but the decision not to rush back Sterling, and the continued absence of Ben White, who has lacked commitment to the cause, shows that is not the case.

This is also a mature team. Having gone into his first tournament as England manager, the World Cup in 2018, with the second-youngest squad and having also coached the second-youngest squad at Euro 2020, Southgate suddenly has an ageing side.

Tournaments tend to be won by older teams. The average age of the Argentina squad who won the World Cup was 27.9 and of the Italians who triumphed at the last Euros was 27.8. England will be around that age next year. Southgate is working in the here and now. And that means nothing short of winning the Euros.