For all the talk of the refreshing/worrying (delete as appropriate) trend of the England manager calling up players from unfashionable football outposts like Burnley and Bournemouth, the ten outfield players who started on Friday night were drafted exclusively from the Premier League’s four finest teams. That is no coincidence. In the absence of truly world-class footballers, England have no choice but to turn to those footballers cultivated by truly world-class coaches.
The Premier League may never have been so bereft of young English talent, but it has never been so rich in successful and well-regarded managers. The managers of the current top three English clubs have won 16 league titles and four Champions League trophies, while Mauricio Pochettino is potless but certainly not clueless. Southgate may not be blessed with a generation of phenomenal players, but he is blessed with a generation of players being coached by some of the greatest footballing minds.
Southgate does not spend enough time with his charges to truly ‘coach’ them; that job has to be sub-contracted out to those who shape their bodies and most importantly minds on a daily basis. It was telling that after a 1-0 win over the Netherlands, he was keen to emphasise their “tactical awareness” and “intelligence”; it’s little wonder when they are constantly soaking up the ideas of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
It is thanks to Guardiola and his philosophy of using full-backs as extra midfielders that Kyle Walker can play and impress in a central defensive role. It is thanks to Guardiola that Raheem Sterling is now more striker than winger. It is thanks to Klopp that Jordan Henderson can play a deep midfield role and still look for positive passes. It is thanks to Klopp that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can switch in an instant from a press to a push forward beyond the strikers. And, despite all the negativity of this season, it is thanks to Mourinho that Jesse Lingard seems to have a knowledge of space and movement far beyond his natural ability.
“We have a different type of player coming through our academies compared to the past,” said Southgate, who is better placed than most to understand the difference between a 20-year-old player in 2018 and a 20-year-old player in 1990. Not only is this an age when even centre-halves want the ball at their feet, but they are also used to complex tactical plans and can adapt mid-game to changes of formation from both themselves and the opposition. And that is largely thanks to the advances in coaching at club level.
This England squad does not have a talent as precocious as that of Paul Gascoigne, the youngest member of the 1990 World Cup squad at the age of 23, but it does have players educated far beyond the cliche of the stupid footballer. Guardiola’s methods simply do not work with stupid footballers; Sterling, for example, was praised as “clever” and “tactically intelligent” by Brendan Rodgers while still a teenager. Guardiola has tapped into that intelligence and now Southgate and England can reap the benefits.
There will always be those who look at a list of top English scorers in the Premier League and champion the cause of a Glenn Murray, or wonder why part-time right-back Joe Gomez is preferred at centre-half to James Tarkowski, but encouraging performances like England’s on Friday night illustrate why.
Murray would have stuck out like a sore, useless thumb in that fluid England attack, while Tarkowski has spent his career being managed by Paul Dickov, Mark Warburton, Lee Johnson and Sean Dyche rather than a Bundesliga winner. He may be a better ball-playing centre-half than we have seen so far at Burnley, but he is not being coached that way for 40-odd weeks of the year; Southgate cannot reverse that process in just a few days.
In a week when England’s youth teams have once again won games thanks to goals from Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal players, we are reminded that our best chance of future international success might yet be the strength of the English club game and its coaches.
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