A little over 22 years ago, Gareth Southgate ‘the player’ strode out at Wembley as a late addition to England’s Euro ’96 team. Alongside Southgate was the mercurial playmaker in Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne. Gazza had set the 1990 World Cup alight with his dribbling, deft delivery and flair for the unexpected. He tore through the world’s best midfields and now, six years on, he was up to his old tricks as England came within a penalty kick of the final. Now as Gareth Southgate ‘the manager’ gets set to name his latest England squad the search is on for the new Gazza, the player that can unlock top class defences and take England from dark horses to serial contenders.
Building on Success
Southgate in his previous role as England’s Head of Elite Development had played a key role in revitalising England’s youth development program from their new base at St Georges Park. That program saw England in 2017 become the first nation to win 3 FIFA recognised youth tournaments in a calendar year as they won the Under 20 World Cup, Under 19 European Championships and Under 17 World Cup.
With those precocious talents still not ready for the senior side, few in England held high expectations for their side at the 2018 World Cup, following a decade of woeful tournament performances climaxing with the shambolic loss to Iceland at Euro 2016. Yet in Russia, Southgate galvanised his inexperienced side with a cocktail of high pressing football and clinical set pieces as England came within 23 minutes of a World Cup Final.
England fell foul of Croatia’s own mercurial star in the brilliant Luka Modric who inspired Croatia to a comeback win in the semi final. It was obvious that as things started to go wrong, England simply didn’t have a Modric or a Gascoigne-like player to haul themselves back level.
A team that had previously been seen as Harry Kane plus ten now sports a battle hardened core group of Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Jesse Lingard. These are the players who will form the backbone of the England team for years to come. Southgate cleverly masked his team’s lack of a top-class playmaker by introducing his 3-5-2 system and placing the emphasis on ball playing defenders like Stones, Maguire and Kyle Walker. It’s a clever ploy and essential to England’s future but doesn’t make up for the lack of that playmaker, as England legend Kevin Keegan neatly summed up this week “There’s an orchestra but no conductor.”
This new England side bear a striking resemblance to Germany’s 2006 World Cup team. Germany, like England responded to diminishing tournament results by investing in youth development and employing a Euro ’96 hero as manager in Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann built around emerging talents Lukas Podolski, Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweintsteiger. Despite going into their home World Cup with low expectations, Klinsmann’s team made a surprise run to the semi-finals before falling to a technically superior Italy lead by their brilliant playmaker in Andrea Pirlo.
After the World Cup Klinsmann’s assistant Joachim Low took over the reins and guided Germany to the Euro 2008 final, but were undone by the great playmaking double-act in Spain’s Xavi & Iniesta. By 2010, Germany’s investment in youth development was beginning to bear fruit with the likes of Manuel Neuer, Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira and crucially Mesut Ozil. In Ozil Germany had their own dynamic playmaker, their own Pirlo who could pick the lock of the tightest defences. Four years on, with the addition of even more attacking talent in the likes of Kroos and Draxler, Germany were crowned World Champions. So as England look to find their own Ozil or new Gascoigne, where might Southgate turn?
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
Pros: Made it into England’s World Cup squad on the back of an impressive campaign on loan to Crystal Palace. Has the close control to unbalance defenders and create space complete with a fine passing range. Impressed in flashes at the World Cup and served Southgate well during their time with the England Under 21s.
Cons: Now back at parent club Chelsea and has only 1 substitute appearance to his name this season. Needs to play every week to iron out the inconsistencies in his game and that surely means a January transfer before he can be considered an England regular.
Ross Barkley (Chelsea)
Pros: Gascoigne-esque midfielder with the talent to open up defences with his dribbling and can play a killer pass. Now re-energizing his career at Chelsea after a year out injured, should benefit from training with the likes of Willian and Hazard on a daily basis.
Cons: Can be maddeningly inconsistent and make the wrong pass in critical moments. Barkley often filters in and out of games rather than dominating. Still feeling his way back from his lengthy lay-off and still a fringe player for his club.
Jonjo Shelvey (Newcastle)
Pros: The Newcastle playmaker can play decisive passes and enjoyed a fine 2017-18 season, he’s hugely improved his disciplinary record and already has over 300 senior appearances at the age of 26.
Cons: England have looked as Shelvey before and he looked world-class against San Marino, yet out of his depth against anyone else. Despite his fine passing range Shelvey only has a 67% completion percentage this season and not a fit for the pressing game Southgate likes to play.
Will Hughes (Watford)
Pros: A technically gifted midfielder who can drive at defences and play give and goes. Enjoying a fine run of form this season after finishing last term on form. Another player familiar to Southgate from the Under 21s, seems likely to get his first senior call up this week.
Cons: Has a poor injury record, he’s still to prove he can perform over a full season and against top class opposition.
Harry Winks (Tottenham)
Pros: Looked set for a World Cup place after impressing on his England debut a year ago. It was a just reward for a player who held his own against Real Madrid duo Kroos and Modric in the Champions League. Has a fine passing range and always looking to play the forward pass, the type of deep-lying playmaker England need to release the pressure on Jordan Henderson.
Cons: After impressing in the autumn Winks struggled with a persistent ankle injury through the remainder of the campaign and missed the World Cup. Now back to fitness but trying to recapture his best form and usually a sub for Tottenham.
Lewis Cook (Bournemouth)
Pros: Captained England’s Under 20s to their World Cup win and then lead the Under 21’s to another triumph at the Toulon Tournament this summer. At 21 has already played over 100 senior games and won his first senior England cap in March. Another deep-lying midfielder with guile and a fine passing range.
Cons: Currently out of the Bournemouth team, most expect Cook to make the transition to the senior England team but needs to play more consistently for Bournemouth first.
James Maddison (Leicester)
Pros: The early contender for Young Player of the Year, Maddison has stepped into the huge shoes of Riyad Mahrez at Leicester and delivered 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 matches. Maddison has excelled in his number 10 role, the £24 million Leicester spent on him this summer already looks a bargain.
Cons: Still relatively unproven at Premier League level and only has 4 England Under 21 appearances. Maddison looks certain to get his England chance but Southgate may need to rejig his attack to accommodate him.
Jack Grealish (Aston Villa)
Pros: A hugely talented midfielder who can skip past players in a manner reminiscent of Joe Cole. Grealish is in fine form after his career looked to be going of the rails a few years ago, signed a new long-term deal earlier this month.
Cons: His Villa side remain mired in England’s second tier and as Southgate has already said it’s hard to make an impression if you’re playing in the Championship. Interestingly Grealish’s new contract is said to contain a £45million buyout clause, should Villa fail to win promotion expect someone to meet the clause this summer.
Phil Foden (Manchester City)
Pros: The 18-year-old is seen by many as England’s great white hope. Foden was player of the tournament when England raised the Under 17 World Cup last October and has started to make an impact on City’s first team, highlighted by his man of the match performance in the EFL Cup last week. Foden has the footballing instincts to see the clever pass and his unerring distribution skills have drawn comparisons with Andres Iniesta
Cons: Still only a peripheral figure at City, Foden has just played 31 minutes of Premier League football this season. Clearly it’s a case of when not if Foden becomes a key player but for now the teenager needs to accumulate more time in City’s team and the England junior sides.
Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Pros: A box of tricks winger who became the first player to reach 5 assists in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season. Sancho’s record is all the more remarkable given he’s only been used as a substitute this season. His trickery on the ball is matched by his deadly accurate crossing, a stand out for England’s Under 17’s, the 18-year-old looks to be a superstar in the making.
Cons: More a winger than a central midfielder, Sancho is another when not if for England but will still need one of the players above to give him the ball.
Picture Credits: Four-Four-Two, Irish News, Daily Star, The Independent