England's shootout victory over Colombia to enter the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals indicate that the side may have finally rid itself of the baggage that had consumed two previous generations, something Gareth Southgate would know a lot about (Pic: IANS).
England head into their FIFA World Cup quarterfinal against Sweden with the most likeable squad they have fielded in years. A lot of this is down to sheer freshness of the squad.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, 19, is the youngest in a team led by the 24-year-old Harry Kane. Apart from these two, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jesse Lingard, Eric Dier, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford are all 25 or younger. That’s an incredible 13 players and many in key positions.
So far they have been able to successfully deal with the intense pressure that comes with representing England at a World Cup with confidence, clarity and not a small amount of style. That they were able to get past the penalty shootout against Colombia was an indication that this generation may have finally rid itself of the baggage that had consumed two previous generations. No one will understand this better than coach Gareth Southgate himself.
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Football was meant to be coming home at Euro ’96 until Southgate, a relative unknown in a squad full of larger-than-life players; Tony Adams, David Platt, Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer, missed the penalty that cost England a place in the final. He had a long England career and played 503 Premier League games. But Southgate could never attract the attention of clubs bigger in stature than Middlesbrough and Aston Villa. With the win over Colombia, he has managed to exorcise some of those long-lived demons.
All this is not happening by chance or coincidence. That so many younger players are making an impact at this tournament is evidence to indicate a generational shift in global football. Germany are the perfect case in point on the one hand—where players coming through the system are not reaching the levels already established by the 2010 generation.
England are at the opposite end of the development cycle—where the players currently in the first team are very young, by and large, but are able to perform to a high standard because they have already been in the system for a number of years. The English FA seems to have developed a cohesive development plan for its teams—right up from the under 15s going to the first team.
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Michael Chopra, the English striker who played for Newcastle and Sunderland in the Premier League and represented England at the youth level, says what we are seeing at the World Cup “has taken 10 years to get right”.
It is this decade-long process that enables Southgate to put his faith in this young squad because he knows they are as well trained as any footballer on the planet. During the course of that training some have represented their club sides at the highest possible level. All have experience playing the system and style of football that is now coherently articulated by England teams across age levels. The success of this process is evidenced by England having won almost all the youth championships they could have. At the Under-17 World Cup in India last year, they were rampant and never looked like losing a game.
“Guys like Pickford, Walker and so many other have already been in the system so long that everyone knows their role in the team,” Chopra elaborates. “So, when they are called on to do a job there is no element of doubt as to how that role is to be fulfilled. Similarly, going forward, when the kids that played and won the Under-17 World Cup back in India are called on to play for the senior squad four years from now, you will have guys that are ready.”
Chopra feel the English have not been given due credit for setting this long-term vision into practice despite the success of its various teams. “People are always talking about playing the Dutch or German or Spanish way,” he says.
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“Them countries will always be good at football, but why doesn’t anyone talk about the English way? Dutch football is on a downward spiral. The Germans need a new system to be put into place. England are getting it right and I know the FA would be more than willing to let India come and see how they are working and help them put a similar model in place if they want. I’m not really sure why the AIFF is not already there, watching and learning.”
Chopra is also convinced that Indian players need to get out India and start mixing it with the best in the world. He is confident that there are several clubs in Europe that are willing to help Indian players grow.
“When Komal Thatal was at ATK in the Indian Super League (ISL), along with Ashley Westwood, we had managed to work out a training stint at Ajax,” he says. “They have among the best youth facilities in the world. I don’t know what happened eventually, but the possibilities are there. If Indian players want to prove they can be better than they currently are, they need to get out and mix it up in Europe. No one is going to become a known football name sitting in India alone. No matter how much of a superstar you might think you are.”
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If there is anything holding England back it is a similar lack of movement. While several players from the most successful nations—Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Italy—play their football in leagues all over Europe, the English are among the few that stay home.
“It is not about having the biggest clubs or the best league in the world,” Chopra says. “Unless you are willing to go out and test yourself in different conditions, adapt and evolve, long term success at the senior level will always be difficult to achieve.”
Will Southgate’s young England validate Chopra’s line of thought? We will soon find out.