When England’s so called ‘Golden Generation’ routinely disappointed at major international tournaments, the FA came in for widespread condemnation for the way the senior team was managed. To be fair to the FA, they realised that things had to change and so undertook a root and branch review of the men’s national team. As part of that plan, the FA finally pushed ahead with plans for St George’s Park, the national centre for football.
The FA decided to use St George’s Park as true hub for England teams of all levels. The training centre was just one part of the plan though. The FA decided that a top down approach must be taken by England so that a sense of commonality in terms of tactics and style of play was felt by teams and players of all levels.
Gareth Southgate has played a big part in this change of approach. As the England under-21 manager he had to be wedded to the overarching style and the overall development of England players. The job Southgate did as a coach and a vital cog in the machine went down very well with the FA who had thought of him as a future manager of the senior team for some time. And yet, Southgate had to be persuaded to take the job following the sacking of Sam Allardyce as he was concerned that his own development as a coach had not yet reached the point where he was ready for the big job.
In the end, Southgate took the decision not to make perfect the enemy of good. He threw himself into the role with the same approach of trusting the process that won him so many fans amongst the FA. That process has begun to secure results in a big way for England. Thanks to his knowledge and belief in the England set up, Southgate has had no problem promoting young players to the senior squad confident that they are good enough and understand what is expected of them. His trust was rewarded at the World Cup, during the Nations League group stage and now in qualifying for Euro 2020 where England’s young lions have shown a maturity that is well beyond their tender years.
Patience a Mark of England’s Confidence
Tom Heaton was the only player aged over 30 in the England squad that took on the Czech Republic and Montenegro in their opening two European qualifiers. Take goalkeepers out of the equation and 28-year-old Kyle Walker was the most senior member of the squad. That they were able to score 10 goals and conceded just one in two potentially tricky matches speaks volumes for this team.
Belying the young age of the players who both started the matches and came off the bench was the maturity of England’s performances. Twice, England came up against opponents who were content to defend deep and in numbers. It is very easy for players and teams to become frustrated with their inability to make a breakthrough and veer away from the pre-match instructions set out by the manager. The England players, by contrast, were happy to bide their time on the ball, stretch the opposition defence and take their chances when they came.
Perhaps the main reason England were happy to remain patient was the confidence that the players have about their attacking ability. It’s easier to choose the sensible option rather than taking an unnecessary risk if you know that one of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling or Dele Alli will get on the end of any chances created.
As it turned out, England’s confidence in their own attacking threat was well placed. The Three Lions sent out a message both to the rest of Group A and the competition at large with a ruthlessness in both games. They did not have to keep pushing for goals when the games were won but England did so anyway to make it very clear that they are one of the favourites to win the Euro 2020 final which will be held at Wembley Stadium.
Adversity Will Only Strengthen England
Those jaded England fans who are refusing to get carried away about those recent performances will say that they’ve seen it all before – how many times have we seen England make light work of poor oppositions in qualifying before failing so miserably when it really matters? Some have even said that England made some sloppy mistakes in both games but should the fact that Southgate’s men were far from perfect actually be viewed as a positive?
England went 1-0 down against Montenegro and had to ride their luck a little during the opening stages of the second half against Czech Republic when the visiting side had a couple of decent chances which worried the majority of the crowd at Wembley Stadium. Obviously, Southgate wants his players to be in control of matches from the first whistle to the last but he knows that is impossible, especially in the bigger tests that England will need to pass in order to get their hands on major silverware.
What Southgate really wants at this stage of England’s cycle is for his players to come through tough spells. They did that with flying colours during the matches in Wembley and Podgorica and even had to come through a test that nobody connected with England wanted them to face.
The Ugly Face of Football
UEFA had designated Montenegro versus England as a match which had a high risk of racism. England were made aware of the threat but were still shocked with the racist abuse that included monkey noises aimed at some England players. Danny Rose was particularly targeted during the match and Southgate cannot help but have been happy with the way Rose’s teammates supported him both during and after the match.
The England players remained calm despite the provocation that came their way and then spoke with remarkable maturity immediately after the game. Raheem Sterling rightly won a special amount of praise not only for what he said post game but for the way that he stood up to become a figure of authority and support for younger players in the squad such as Callum Hudson-Odoi. It is easy to forget that Sterling only turned 24 in December. His next match will see him win his 50th cap for England and he is, in many ways, the model of the sort of player and person that Southgate believes will form the backbone of successful England teams for years to come.
No matter what happens to this current England team in the Nations League, Euro 2020 and even beyond, they have earned the respect of the fans and the wider footballing world. That they have done so with such a young group of players is all the more impressive and augurs very well for the future.