Even after the recent countrywide buzz around the England team after their flirt with ultimate glory this summer, recent international breaks have garnered familiar eye roll type reactions from many a supporter. For a certain kind of football enthusiast at least once the club season kicks in, especially those who follow the top premiership sides, any break in proceedings is seen as a pointless distraction from the week in week out culture of football that they have become joyfully addicted to.
So the newly introduced Nations League always had an uphill battle to catch fire with British football culture. It also didn’t help that you need an Excel spreadsheet and accompanying written breakdown to work out what the point of it actually is. Even when you clarify the stipulations involved many nations still seem unsure on how to approach a premise, that for the larger nations at least, basically only serves to spice up boring friendlies that have riddled international breaks for years.
For England fans (and those trying to maintain their ‘summer of 2018’ interest) it also didn’t help that the Gareth Southgate’s side began their ‘campaign’ in the Nations League with a home defeat to Spain that was followed by a goalless draw with Croatia dull enough to keep fans away even if they were allowed into the stadium. Seemingly, the chore of watching England games in-between the big competitions was one that was here to stay, regardless of the long term progress now being achieved.
So not many would have expected England to catch their attention on Monday night in Seville’s Benito Villamarin stadium yet many a head was no doubt turned (even by those not watching) by the fact that Southgate’s young side went into half time three goals to the good. England’s energetic front three cut through Spain’s experienced back line at will during the first forty five minutes and England fully deserved their unexpected three goal cushion at the interval. And despite a predictable Spain fight back in the second half, the back page headlines for the next morning had already been written. ‘England come of age’ and ‘Southgate gets the statement win he needed’ were just a couple of many bold assertions made from those had observed the game.
While traditionally as an England fan it’s never good to get carried away, perhaps with this generation of players and manager it might very well be time to. At a relatively young age this group has already gained the vital experience of going deep in a major tournament, something that most England players in the last twenty years or so could not boast on their resume. Moreover, there is a clearly a freshness about the whole set up that Southgate has created with assistant coach Steve Holland, meaning the players seem happier to leave their clubs and play for their country in the midst of the club season. The youthful nature of the squad also means that unlike previous England groups, it has the time to steadily improve. At twenty eight years old Kieran Trippier was the relative geriatric soul of the bunch in Seville. Many will point to a lack of strength in depth in certain areas and a general lack on experience from the bench. However, again youthfulness could negate this issue over time with a host of young talent ready to break into their club first elevens in order to make their mark internationally.
Relating directly to this, a determining factor of England’s potential success will be how players at the bigger clubs, such as Ruben Loftus Cheek and possibly a player like Phil Foden in years to come, manage their situation in terms of pitch minutes. Southgate seems to be ignoring club pitch minutes to a certain extent with some of his selections yet naturally it’s much more beneficial for the England team if their squad members are regularly playing for their club sides. Something which is clearly not happening nearly as much as it should be in regard to the top six and beyond in the premiership.
Moving away from the general state of the domestic game and how it effects potential future stars for England, it’s perhaps more important to focus on the established squad members that Southgate currently has at his disposal. As highlighted by so many in the media, the front three of Kane, Sterling and Rashford were excellent on Monday night and if they can even partially replicate their performance in Seville, will cause any team in the world a plethora of problems. Many already fully acknowledge the attributes of captain Harry Kane yet some (including some of those same media outlets) remain lukewarm on Raheem Sterling. Despite his brilliant goal on Monday night being his first in two years in an England shirt surely those who ever doubted his worth to the team were part of an ill-founded and illogical witch hunt. With eighteen goals and eleven assists last season under Pep Guardiola’s guidance and four goals already this season, anyone who critiques the Man City forward too intensely is clearly doing so for non-footballing reasons. It’s high time that numbers produced on the pitch for club and country far override any form of lazy tabloid sensationalism when it comes to the England side and indeed the domestic game in general.
Monday’s win did not suddenly make England favourites to win Euro 2020 or even the Nations League (not even sure if you can win it, someone let me know if they happen to know if it’s possible) yet it did showcase a young team that can both readily compete with and trouble any international side in the world. And in truth, when it comes to international teams within Europe at least, seemingly nothing is set in stone like it so often is at club level. Belgium undoubtedly have a brilliant squad yet Germany are faltering badly, technically England just beat Spain, Italy didn’t make to the last World Cup and many would assert that recent World Cup winners France are beatable. All that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to put on The Lightning Seeds at full blast yet only a true pessimist would state that they didn’t see genuine potential in what they witnessed on Monday night.
Many viewed Jordan Pickford’s nearly costly error in judgement in the second half as foolish and they might have a point. However, another interpretation might be that it was an example of a young player who is learning to play without trepidation and given the relative success already accumulated by the Everton keeper, his teammates and their young manager, the future holds nothing for them to be fearful of.
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