Gareth Southgate should focus on the positives with England
Optimism is in short supply. Maybe that's too pessimistic.
Barring catastrophe, England will qualify for Euro 2024.
That was always likely regardless, but beating Italy away from home gave Gareth Southgate’s side the hardest three points of the group, then the win over Ukraine at Wembley strengthened their position. I would’ve taken four points from these games, so to get six makes it a very positive international break. England should be optimistic about the tournament, with most bookies putting them alongside France and hosts Germany as the three favourites to win the European Championships next year.
The mood isn’t amazing. People are partly getting tired of this team under Southgate. England played pretty well at the World Cup, just falling short in a close game against finalists France, and played the best football they’ve managed in a tournament under Southgate. But after reaching the semi-finals in 2018 and the final at Euro 2020, it was a backwards step in terms of results. Southgate himself even contributed to a negative feeling with his comments on English players in the Premier League.
The percentage of players starting in the Premier League who are English “has been around 32 per cent but that's down from 35 per cent when I took over [in 2016] and 38 per cent in the years before so the graph is clear - there's no argument about that”, Southgate claimed. “If breaking into the team is the foundation, the Champions League and the upper echelons of the Premier League is the finishing school. The rest of Europe get their foundation in their own domestic leagues and then the cream is sold around the big five leagues and they get the finishing school at the end.”
Like many of my worldview and politics, my gut response was to shriek at this claim as xenophobic and closed-minded. I’ve been hearing that English football is doomed to fail because of foreigners all my life and it’s still doing ok. But I think there’s a more fundamental point Southgate and others are missing. English football has a brilliant generation of young players right now. I’d argue only France could claim to have a better crop of Gen Z footballers. Why is that?
Some of it is just the ebb and flow of talent. England had its infamous “golden generation” in the 2000s, followed by a subsequent era of players who were nowhere near the required standard to compete. Now we’re in a good patch again. Another factor is the reforms made to improve talent in the early 2010s, notably the Premier League’s “Elite Player Performance Plan” and the FA’s “England DNA”. There is also the journalist Carl Anka’s “tricky concrete bastards” theory, that a decline in green space led to kids growing up in cities playing on hard surfaces that develop a very different skillset to the classic English player. I think all of these ideas played a part.
But by far the most obvious factor is the same reason as everything else in English football: money. The Premier League is dripping with wealth, and that’s allowed those clubs to build first-class academy facilities. Chelsea and Manchester City have the best academies in the world because the clubs have invested money. The clubs have invested money because the Premier League is so rich (and attracts rich owners). The Premier League is so rich… because it has many of the best international stars in the world. The influx of foreign talent has driven revenues through the roof, and that’s meant young English players get better resources and facilities than ever before. To reduce the number of foreign players, therefore, would be an act of self-harm in my view.
Right now, England are enjoying the benefits of a strong talent pool. At the same time, many feel Southgate is too conservative with his player choices. He talks sometimes about the “core group” of players who have been involved since the 2018 World Cup and continue to play for England. As of 2023, that consists of the following players:
Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling1, Kieran Trippier, Marcus Rashford
If a new manager had come in after the World Cup and picked their first squad in March, how many of those players would actually be involved?
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