English football has been going through a resurgence in recent years. Along with the likes of Liverpool flying the flag high for England, the national team has excelled at various levels as the World Champion U20 and U17 teams were followed by the senior side achieving their best finish at a World Cup for 28 years. It’s evident that the raw talent coming through the ranks is something special, but now the attention turns to whether the England national team can harness this potential and produce a side good enough to compete for major honours.
English Excellence - Young Players on the Rise
Goalkeepers: Mark Travers, Dean Henderson, Aaron Ramsdale
Centre-backs: Joe Gomez, Fikayo Tomori, Axel Tuanzebe, Rob Holding, Ben Godfrey, Marc Guehi
Fullbacks: Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Chillwell, Ryan Sessegnon, Reece James, Jamal Lewis, Max Aarons, James Justin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles
Central midfielders: Declan Rice, Morgan Gibbs-White, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Hamza Choudhury, Joe Willock, Lewis Cook, Oliver Skipp
Attacking midfielders: Phil Foden, Mason Mount, James Maddison, Angel Gomes, Emile Smith-Rowe, Todd Cantwell
Wingers: Ademola Lookman, Jadon Sancho, Reiss Nelson, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Harvey Barnes, Dwight McNeil, Bukayo Saka
Strikers: Eddie Nketiah, Tammy Abraham, Rhian Brewster, Mason Greenwood
As these players’ abilities is not in doubt, continued hunger to be the best and staving off injuries while maximising gametime for their clubs will be the pivotal factors as to whether these young players are able to sustain long-term success. Complacency in major tournaments has been an issue for England teams in the past, and it was also manifest during the recent U21 European Championships in which many of the players mentioned above were involved.
England can look at how recent World Cup winners were able to make the most of their talented generations and try and replicate certain aspects of their successes.
Spain (Euro 2008 & 2012, World Cup 2010 winners)
Spain were widely considered perennial underachievers on the international stage before their triumph in 2008, as they had produced talented players, such as Raúl, Fernando Hierro and Emiliano Butragueño, but hadn’t won a major honour since 1964.
When you think of the all-conquering Spain team, technically outstanding players such as Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas immediately spring to mind. It was no coincidence that Spain produced such an array of small, talented midfielders that Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata could barely get any game time.
Spain worked from the ground up to establish a footballing culture centred around players that were comfortable on the ball and could dominate possession. This philosophy set them apart from other contenders at the time as they suffocated possession, making their opponents have to drastically change their gameplans. Such was this team’s influence that there has been a rise in ‘Spanish style’ English midfielders, such as Phil Foden, who differ from the stereotypical English midfielder. The use of St. George’s Park National Football Centre in 2012 would have hopefully got some of the current youngsters to grow together following a similar footballing philosophy which may now be applied to the senior team.
Germany (World Cup 2014 winners)
Whilst it’s hard to argue that a nation with 4 World Cups and 3 European Championships has one single golden generation, the group that propelled Germany to 2014 glory are certainly a good example of a close-knit group of players that all progressed lineally. Key players like Mats Hummels, Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller were all born between 1986 and 1989 and had grown up playing together from a young age for both club and country. Five of the aforementioned players started the U21s Euro 2009 final where they got a taste of victory as they trounced England 4-0. All were subsequently involved in the 2010 World Cup where the youngsters impressed on their way to the semi-finals, putting 4 past both England and Argentina in the knockout stages before succumbing to eventual winners Spain. Although they fell short, this was a resounding success for this young team as Thomas Müller won the Golden Boot and Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira both earned moves to Real Madrid off the back of the tournament.
Not only did this generation’s experience hold them in good stead for their 2014 World Cup win, but a group of players born from 1983-1985 had preceded the 2010 class by reaching the semis of the 2006 World Cup. Phillip Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger were all 22 years or younger during this tournament and played starring roles which they used to build on their international careers. Lahm and Mertesacker retired from international football immediately after their 2014 World Cup triumph in Brazil whilst Podolski and Schweinsteiger did so a few years later with the quartet accumulating 468 caps between them. That level of experience is invaluable when trying to win major honours and England can try and emulate this template to some degree. Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, John Stones, Harry Kane et al. have already experienced tournament football with England and can use their experiences, both positive and negative, to try and guide the new crop of U23 talent in the same way the Germans did.
France (World Cup 2018 winners)
Something that England can take away from France’s World Cup 2018 winning side is how manager Didier Deschamps didn’t just cram all the most talented players into the starting XI, but rather opted for the most balanced team. After starting mercurial winger Ousmane Dembele in their World Cup opener against Australia, Deschamps eventually settled on a team with target man Olivier Giroud favoured over a more prolific striker like Alexandre Lacazette whilst box-to-box midfielder Blaise Matuidi started on the left side of midfield over more creative players like Dembele, Thomas Lemar and Nabil Fekir. This new lineup was very well balanced, complimenting star players Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe. Deschamps was famously called “the water carrier” during his playing days by Eric Cantona, and just as he allowed the likes of Zinedine Zidane to flourish, he found the winning formula for France as manager.
Additionally, after France’s disastrous, mutinous 2010 World Cup campaign, the French Football Federation prioritised good squad harmony. Despite mediocre showing in the subsequent 2 tournaments, the FFF were happy with the job Deschamps had done having replaced Laurent Blanc. It should be noted that neither Franck Ribery (retired) nor Karim Benzema played for France after 2015 and despite being arguably the nation’s two most talented players, the team thrived. Benzema was still an elite centre-forward but after his blackmail scandal involving French teammate Mathieu Valbuena, the Real Madrid striker wasn’t considered for selection again. Both him and Ribery had careers riddled with controversy and could have disrupted the excellent squad chemistry and morale in the French dressing room. Due to their triumph in Russia, no one involved in French football will have any regrets over their omissions.
England’s previous ‘golden generation’ were notorious underachievers. Despite boasting players who were world-class for their clubs such as Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney to name but a few, they consistently flattered to deceive on the international stage, never advancing past the quarter-finals of a major tournament.
On the plus side, this side provides an excellent example of how not to maximise the potential of a golden generation and what Southgate and co. should look to avoid.
One of the obvious downfalls was Sven-Göran Eriksson putting out an XI of all the most ‘talented’ players and the team that looks the best on paper, but not the best team in reality. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard infamously struggled to play together in midfield in a 4-4-2 formation with neither player’s quality being fully utilised. Lampard and Gerrard often played alongside the likes of Javier Mascherano and Claude Makelele at club level, allowing the English duo more freedom but English holding midfielders such as Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick and Owen Hargreaves started intermittently so there was no real chemistry that could be built.
Shoehorning players out of position was also a theme for this England team with Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard often deployed wide left, and whilst this worked for France when they moved Matuidi wide, Matuidi is naturally left-footed and France played a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 hybrid, an entirely different system than the 4-4-2 used by Sven-Göran Eriksson. When you add in Frank Lampard, England had 3 elite centre-midfielders yet their midfield never seemed to really stand out as a collective.
Another issue was that, due to fierce club rivalries, there was some tension between England’s stars. Rio Ferdinand stated that once he and then close friend Lampard went their separate ways after leaving West Ham, they stopped speaking to each other due to the ferocity of the Chelsea-Manchester United rivalry with both clubs regularly vying for titles. Whilst selecting players who play for rival clubs isn’t a barrier to international success, as Spain showed with a team largely comprised of Barcelona and Real Madrid players, it’s essential that Southgate’s England don’t let petty rivalries bring down their morale and derail their potential success.
Current England (2018 - present)
Arguably the most significant feature of Southgate’s reign is that he has harmonised the England setup so that club rivalries do not infringe on the national team’s unity. It is no longer the case that England players only spend time with their clubmates on national duty and, as many English pundits, fans and players have noted since the 2018 World Cup, there is a real sense of togetherness now with England’s senior team.
Although man-for-man the current England XI can’t compete with Eriksson’s 2000’s team, it does seem as though the current England set up will help England’s talented next generation to succeed in a way that Eriksson’s didn’t. The FA should now be aware of what to avoid and what to do when assembling a team for contention. England have the talent, now it’s time to use it correctly.
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