When it comes to England’s dramatic win over Croatia on Sunday, it still seems unclear how much fans should actually care about it as the Nations League no doubt still remains a bit of a mystery to even the most hardened international football fan. Yet, if the competition turns out to do little more than spice up the slew of yawn-inducing mid-season international friendly fixtures that preceded it then many will argue that is has fully served its purpose anyway. As Sunday’s scenes, which saw England players carting off to celebrate with their game-winning captain in front of a jubilant Wembley crowd, are usually the type that are reserved for more memorable summer months.
Harry Kane’s close range winner topped off an excellent international break for Gareth Southgate’s young side to cap off a year where they made history in the face of a well established lack of enthusiasm surrounding the England team. This win also granted England’s World Cup heroes a small slice of revenge for that painful World Cup semi-final defeat back in mid July. Since then, despite a rocky start in the new format of the Nations League, England have shown a real determination and togetherness that squads of recent times have severely lacked. Additionally, in a bizarre twist of fate, it looks like the players are enjoying taking a break from their club duties to meet up with the national squad. A shift in thinking that Southgate and his staff surely have to take most of the credit for.
This fresh ethos surrounding the team has been aided by Southgate’s dynamic selection policy which seems to throw up a few surprises every time the group come together. The England manager is not in any way reluctant to introducing new blood to what is an ever settled group. Recent examples of this are Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson and Ben Chilwell of Leicester, who after impressing versus the USA, earned a starting place in Sunday’s Nations League group decider. Decisions like these seem to keep the senior players on their toes while giving Southgate the chance to eye test a handful of in-form club players (like Wilson) at international level.
Another reason for England’s recent success might curiously be related to premier league selection headaches. As while some managers at the top clubs in the premiership, who are under gargantuan levels of pressure, find themselves unable to give British youngsters an uninterrupted run in the side, naturally Southgate is managing to do so more often. An example of this to some extent is Marcus Rashford, who seems to be trusted more regularly at national than club level. By essentially ignoring the amount of club minutes played by a player and focusing instead on their potential to improve his own squad, Southgate is earning himself players that may actually now be prioritising country over club, though this is a statement that will rightfully remain contentious to many.
In any case, as long as his players care more than previous squads then this fact will continue a culture that facilitates the ability of England to go from strength to strength, with a wide crop of young talent lying behind the current first eleven. Jadon Sancho’s form at Dortmund and performance versus the USA has been widely publicised yet he is one of many players who are likely to break through into the first eleven in the next few years. As mentioned before on thesixyardring, it’ll be crucial how these young players manage their roles at the bigger clubs as that will likely define how key a part of the England set up they end up being.
Some might argue that what Sancho decided to do with his career was too large a risk at the age of eighteen, yet perhaps it wasn’t a risk at all. If he failed to impress in Germany he would have come back home, likely to a premiership side and been able to start all over again. Whereas young players at the likes of Chelsea and Man City, who are currently ‘learning day in and out by training with the best in the world’ are perhaps taking a bigger risk, gambling that one day they will be able to hold down a starting role in a league that is getting more competitive by the day. It’s a tough decision for young heads to make and clearly with the influence of agents, family and managers the choice of where to play isn’t always their own. Yet, many might have to break the mould like Sancho did in order to get ahead of the dense crop of young footballing talent that the world possesses.
As for England, they will now face Portugal in the Nations League finals in June, needing only two wins to win the trophy outright. The World Cup it isn’t, however simply being in the finals has arguably made qualifying for Euro 2020 easier as they will now play in a five not six team group and are already guaranteed a place in the Euro 2020 qualifying playoffs if they somehow cannot qualify through traditional means. Aside from all the confusing benefits of the League, it gives fans the opportunity to watch another set of games that mean something while enjoying a summer pint or two. Meanwhile for the players, it allows them to keep the momentum being gathered going over the summer break, which by the sounds of it many of them will relish. Which in itself illustrates how things have changed when it comes to the general feeling around the England team and what it might be able to achieve in the future.
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