It was Gareth Southgate’s birthday on Sunday. Fresh from guiding England to their first semi-final since 1996, the England manager will look back fondly on his 47th year. But things move quickly in football and only the briefest of pauses are afforded for reflection. Now, as England prepare to take the first step on the long road to Euro 2020, attention turns to improvement and the progress that can be made in the months ahead.
A new fanbase was engaged this summer. The thousands that flocked to Hyde Park to watch England face Croatia were physical, beer-soaked proof, encouraged by a daring young side with a freshly attacking, technical style. Despite the new approach, epitomised by Jordan Pickford and a back three at ease with the ball at their feet, moments of relapse were evident. Warning signs were revealed in pre-tournament friendlies against Italy and Nigeria, when both teams poured forward putting England on the back foot. Similar circumstances were exhibited at the World Cup against Tunisia, Colombia and Croatia, with England finding it difficult to control the pace of the game and reverting to long ball tactics when things got hairy. It’s one area that Southgate will look to set right as the inaugural Uefa Nations League gets underway, moulding a team to competently combat the opposition’s offensive storms with resolutely neat, slick football their trademark armour.
The level of success they’ll have in this will largely depend on the players that are incorporated into the team. Southgate has spoken of the ‘fresh cycle’ that they embarking on, which has left behind the likes of Jamie Vardy, Gary Cahill and Joe Hart. Instead, impetus has shifted to youth, with a promising batch of talent waiting in the wings for their England bow. The likes of Manchester City’s Phil Foden and Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi are tipped to feature before too long, in addition to a scattering of young trailblazers venturing abroad in the hopes of first team football. Time will tell whether Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and Hoffenheim loanee Reiss Nelson’s European gambles will pay off.
Of the up and coming talent, technically gifted midfield players will be of most interest. England cried out for both a creative number 10 and regista in Russia and were schooled in the art of midfield mastery by Luka Modric at the Luzhniki Stadium in July. Alongside the players respective clubs, the Three Lions future success will hinge on Southgate’s ability to get the best out of the latest promising crop. Reducing the team’s dependency on set-pieces to win a game would mark a significant, welcome change.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that lies ahead is that of maintaining the attention and imagination of the country’s supporters. International friendlies have long been regarded unfavourably by the majority, an inconvenient interruption to the headline business of the Premier League. The brimming optimism for the national team coupled with the expectedly more competitive Uefa Nations League should go some way to curtailing past perceptions. Southgate will hope good feeling continues to radiate towards his team as the Three Lions march towards the European Championships in two years time.
First though, they must negotiate a visit from the Spanish, who visit Wembley on Saturday evening with their own improvements to make. Three points would be the perfect late birthday gift for the England manager.