By Ed Lord
There are three things which are certain in life: death, taxes, and the England national team disappointing the entire nation at every major tournament. At least, that has certainly been the case in the last decade under the likes of Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson. Whilst Gareth Southgate may not be able to anything about the first of life’s inevitabilities, he seems to be making a definitive effort to solve the latter.
Before the 0-0 draws against Germany and Brazil, it didn’t seem as if Southgate’s tenure would be any different to those of his predecessors. It looked as if England were slipping into their old routine; picking the same players from the same teams for the squad, beating teams made up of farmers and postmen (usually in the form of Malta or Lithuania) in qualifying for a tournament and being built up by the English media only to then fail catastrophically.
However, these results could indicate a change. On the face of it, consecutive 0-0 draws at Wembley do not seem like something to be taken this positively, but, putting these results in context, they seem like a step in the right direction.
As the games approached, numerous key players of the utmost importance to England such as Harry Kane and Dele Alli pulled out of the squad due to injury, while Jordan Henderson’s injuries also ruled him out.
This allowed Southgate to give invaluable game time to squad players, as well as handing out six debuts across the two games. A new-look, young England squad managing to go head to head with arguably the two best teams on the planet should not be overlooked – and any game in which Joe Hart is able to keep a clean sheet should be celebrated for as long as possible.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was the man who really stood out for England against Germany, winning tackles, creating chances, holding possession comfortably and humiliating Marcel Halstenberg with a wonderful nutmeg and Cruyff turn in the first half.
The inclusion of the Chelsea loanee in the squad might have surprised many, but he rose to the occasion and played with a real passion which England had been lacking.
The same can be said of Joe Gomez’s performance against Brazil, as he comfortably dealt with Neymar and Gabriel Jesus all night – which no doubt raised the eyebrows of some Liverpool fans and had Joël Matip jumping for joy at the prospect of playing alongside a competent centre-back partner.
Gomez and Loftus-Cheek’s performances (as well as those of Jordan Pickford, Dominic Solanke and Tammy Abraham) have shown the importance of youth in these circumstances. They gave their all, they understood the honour of representing their country, and they played for the shirt – all things which have been lacking in recent England squads.
What cannot be forgotten is how England’s youth has prospered recently. The U21s reached the semi-finals of the European Championships this summer, the U20s won their World Cup, and, just before these international fixtures, the U17s won their World Cup in India.
It’s an incredibly exciting time for English youth football, and it has come at a perfect time, as Gareth Southgate has shown he is willing to look to these youth prospects when picking the senior squad.
England fans can only hope that clubs can do the same and give these players the development and first-team football that they need – even if that means sending them out on loan, like Loftus-Cheek and Abraham at Crystal Palace and Swansea respectively.
When England fans tuned in to watch the games, it was with dread and fear of oncoming annihilation – but that is not what they saw. Instead of the usual lacklustre performances they have become accustomed to, they saw a team who fought with passion and desire. They saw a manager experiment with a 5-3-2 formation and with his team selection.
If Southgate can find the right balance between the desire of youth and the experience of senior players, England really could be a force for years to come.
Photograph: Sven Mandel via Wikimedia Commons