Now we’re in that strange period of limbo in which the international break hasn’t quite finished and the full programme of club football is still a few days away, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on England’s post-World Cup comedown against Spain, and catch-up with the progress of the youngsters that enjoyed a record breaking summer in 2017. The question is – will they ever be ready to step up to the first team?
“I don’t know how you get in an England squad without getting in the Arsenal team.” Gareth Southgate’s response to questions about leaving Jack Wilshere out of his squad for the international break back in November was always likely to come back and bite him. Though Wilshere was little more than a rotation option at the Emirates last season, and was subsequently advised to find another club once his contract had expired in the summer, the England manager’s assertion that he would only be calling up players who were regulars at their club sides seemed fanciful given the wealth of talent from overseas that dominates the starting line-ups in the Premier League’s top six. Wilshere’s was a face that simply didn’t fit with Southgate’s vision for the future of the national team; like Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart, the midfielder has become a totem for underachievement and, judging by his reaction to being left out of the World Cup squad, lacks the required humility that has seen England’s fans and players begin to reconnect.
Even so, Wilshere might have been slightly miffed that, having made the move to West Ham and started all four of their games this season, he was overlooked for others who’ve barely had a sniff. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was apparently desperate for a loan move to guarantee first team football in the summer, has been retained by Chelsea and played just 33 minutes so far this season, though he has been earmarked as a key player for the national team going forwards. Danny Welbeck’s inclusion, despite only appearing for 22 minutes at Arsenal in the opening four games, says more about the manager’s lack of faith in untried striking options. Fabian Delph, with zero minutes for Manchester City so far this season, offers versatility and has proven himself the consummate professional, while three-minute wonder Adam Lallana made the squad because he carries everyone’s moisturiser.
Clearly Southgate sees what these four players can offer and, despite the UEFA Nations League offering a chance to experiment, needs to rely on performances from every member of the squad as and when they’re called on. Wilshere’s career over the past few years has been hit and miss at best, and there are still question marks over some of the other names being bandied around before the World Cup – on talent alone, Jonjo Shelvey would’ve been a shoe-in for the tournament, but there are concerns about the Newcastle playmaker’s consistency. Not a natural gambler, Southgate will need a good reason to call up uncapped players, with the addition of Demarai Gray and Ben Chilwell to this current squad arguably overdue.
All of which spells a frustrating wait for the next crop of English talent to break through. The summer of 2017 feels a lifetime ago now after a fantastic summer in Russia, but let it not be forgotten that England currently has the most successful youth set-up in the world. Victories at the under-19 European Championships and under-17 & under-20 World Cups have seen the spotlight land on England’s youth teams, with a surge in interest at home and abroad in these wunderkinds. But has there been any progress in their development since they lifted the trophies in Georgia, India and South Korea?
Strangely enough, it’s two members of the youngest squad that have been tipped to become England regulars first. Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, who both learned their trade in Manchester City’s development squad, lit up the u17 World Cup in India, with Foden picking up the Golden Ball. Sancho, by then a Borussia Dortmund player, was recalled by his club after the group stages, but had already gone some way to helping his team lift the trophy with three goals in three games. Now, just over a year later, both players are on the fringes of the first team at their respective clubs. Sancho finished last season having already earned himself cult status at the Westfalenstadion, with a goal and four assists from twelve appearances, while Foden tasted life alongside the cream of Europe with two starts in the Champions League. This season they’re yet to rack up more than a handful of minutes for their respective sides, but with both City and Dortmund soon to be competing on three fronts, their chances will undoubtedly come. First team appearences have been few and far between for the rest of the victorious u17 squad, though Callum Odoi Hudson was given a cameo in this season’s Community Shield, while Steven Sessegnon has played in the League Cup for Fulham. Rhian Brewster, top scorer in India with eight goals, has recently signed a new five year deal at Liverpool, though remains a long way down the pecking order.
The under-19 European Championships winning squad was dominated by members the Chelsea youth team that have won six of the last seven FA Youth Cups. Naturally, all six of them have been out on loan since last summer, with Mason Mount emerging as a potential string-puller in England’s midfield. The 19 year old had an impressive spell in the Eredivisie with Chelsea’s satellite club Vitesse Arnhem last season, scoring fourteen and assisting a further eight, whilst his performances for Derby County so far this year have caught the eye. A further four of his fellow Chelsea loanees are learning their trade in the Championship, with Trevoh Chalobah posting some eye-catching performances for Ipswich, while Dujon Sterling, who made the team of the tournament in Georgia, is currently plying his trade at Coventry in League One. Of the u19 squad, only Ryan Sessegnon looks likely to get the requisite top flight minutes to be considered for a call-up, having played a major part in Fulham’s promotion last year. Though yet to show he can cut it at the highest level, time is very much on the side of the explosive winger.
Just one member of the under-20 World Cup winning squad has since been promoted to the senior team, as the highly-rated Lewis Cook finally established himself at Bournemouth under Eddie Howe and was rewarded with a substitute appearance against Italy in March. Jonjoe Kenny and Dominic Calvert-Lewin both enjoyed a run in the Everton first team last season, though the cash splashed by Sam Allardyce and Marco Silva has seen them revert to squad player status, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles had a spell deputising at left-back for Arsenal. Along with Ademola Lookman, 2018/19 looks to be an important season for this clutch of players, as they look to kick on and make a case for a senior call-up. Disappointingly, Dominic Solanke and Freddie Woodman, winners of the Golden Ball and Golden Glove in South Korea respectively, are yet to make a case for regular first-team appearances at their clubs. The re-emergence of Daniel Sturridge at Liverpool and the signing of Martin Dubravka at Newcastle look likely to stymie their chances in the short term.
Having been an active part of the St George’s Park set-up for the last six years, Southgate will be acutely aware that rushing exciting young talent into the first team is as likely to hinder their progress as it is to encourage it. That being said, it’s worth noting that plenty of players from last year’s youth tournaments have already been incorporated into their senior national teams. Timothy Weah, the son of former AC Milan and Monaco forward George who appeared at the u17 World Cup, has been fast-tracked in the United States team following his breakthrough at Paris Saint Germain, and made a thirty-five minute cameo appearance against Brazil during the international break. Gedson Fernandes, who played for Portugal’s u20 side during the Euros, made a cameo against Croatia for the senior team, while teammate Diogo Dalot has since moved to Manchester United for £19m. A handful of players from the under 20 World Cup arrived in Russia this summer to add senior caps at a major tournament to their collection, most notably Rodrigo Bentancur, one of La Celeste’s stand out performers at the tournament. He was joined by Mexico’s Edson Alvarez and Lee Seung-woo of South Korea, both of whom are now regulars for their national sides. Whilst Southgate’s caution is justified, for some of England’s up and coming stars there’s a case for wondering: if not now, when?
There is a flaw in the logic of wanting players to prove themselves before they’re called up to the national team and, as with most of football’s major problems, it falls at the feet of the Premier League. With television revenue and prize money now so lucrative, managers are becoming less and less inclined to experiment with their line-ups and blood youngsters. Despite winning the league by a comfortable margin, Manchester City still went out and spent £60m on Riyad Mahrez providing depth for a position in which Phil Foden could have understudied. Of the top twenty players under-21 with the most minutes last season, twelve were English, but only three made the World Cup squad. Unless the player in question is an exceptional talent – as in the case of Dele Alli – opportunities are extremely limited, and loan moves are more often than not the only way to gain first team experience, which perhaps explains why Loftus-Cheek was so keen to seek a move away from Stamford Bridge, having earned his place in the squad for Russia following a decent season with Crystal Palace. Southgate has even admitted that ‘our pool is getting smaller and smaller’, after naming Championship goalkeeper Jack Butland in his most recent squad and failing to rule out further call-ups from the second tier – which potentially opens the door for Mason Mount and co.
Given the likelihood of England receiving a kind draw in the qualification group for Euro 2020, which kicks off in March, it may be that Southgate gives the youngsters a chance to impress domestically this season before considering them for the low risk games that a top seed ranking inevitably throws up. For the likes of Ryan Sessegnon, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, it’s a case of getting their heads down and letting their feet do the talking. Good things come to those who wait.