Southgate needs to find right moments to let England’s young stars off leash
Gareth Southgate has arguably the most exciting array of young English talent available to a national team manager at a major tournament in recent memory. Others might get overexcited with the quality at their disposal but Southgate will have a clear strategy of how he can utilise his young lions to get the team as far as possible in the European Championship.
Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho have enjoyed incredible seasons for their clubs, liberated by their coaches. Southgate will need to harness the individual styles cultivated in domestic and Champions League football if he is to take England to the latter stages. Tournament football is very different from the club game, with Southgate required to pinpoint the right opposition and moments to let his young stars off the leash.
Southgate knows he cannot fit all the young guns into one team every game but he will certainly have a number of plans and formations he can utilise to get the best out of his flair players. Mount and Foden are highly intelligent footballers, in terms of their movement and ability to run off other people; their football IQs mean they can easily play with each other, because they will work off each other’s movements.
For Manchester City, Foden has been incredible. I would want him to start every game for England as he is the most naturally talented player in the squad. In addition to being ridiculously accomplished, Foden is reliable and consistent, which will work in his favour. Southgate should use him like Pep Guardiola does, allowing him to cut in from the left to cause problems for opponents in the most dangerous parts of the pitch.
I’ve been a young player and a senior player at a tournament. When you are young you need that guidance from those who have been there before, as it’s your first major tournament. You go there wondering what to expect, which is a good thing as it is an exciting new experience and these players fear nothing nowadays. However, you still require support at times to rein you in a little bit. The balance of the squad is important to ensure the youngsters can blossom and express themselves.
The key to liberating the young players will be the fitness of the team’s spine. Despite being called up there are still doubts over Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson. Knowing your experienced players are there will give a confidence boost to Foden, Mount and co. There is little trepidation in this crop of youngsters but seeing the Liverpool and Manchester United captains, not to mention Harry Kane, in the starting XI will give greater conviction to attackers to show what they can do.
Without Henderson the central midfield would be an inexperienced one. The players in the squad do not have a lot of cap accumulation, which I think is important in tournament football. If you look at the teams that have won major competitions they have had experienced spines with lots of caps between them. England’s young players have experience at youth tournaments; it’s not that they haven’t been in this place before, it’s just that they haven’t been in it as a senior.
One player who would be boosted by Henderson’s availability is Jude Bellingham, whom I am a huge fan of, and it’s not just because I am a Birmingham supporter. He plays beyond his 17 years and has an old head on young shoulders. He’s only had a few international caps but if you look at his performance against City for Dortmund in the Champions League, he was always shouting: “Give me the ball,” during the match, reminding me of someone such as Clarence Seedorf, which shows his incredible levels of confidence.
He is unfazed by playing on the biggest stage, which can only serve him well at the Euros. In such a short career he’s already had experience playing in the Championship, Bundesliga and Champions League, so he has proved his adaptability. I think the more senior players coming into the Euros with injuries might fatigue and you need to wrap them in cotton wool, that’s when Southgate might decide to use him.
It is key to have versatile players in the squad, with Bukayo Saka able to play all across the pitch, from left‑back to right-wing, even playing some minutes as a No 10 for Arsenal. The teenager may not get the amount of minutes at the Euros as Foden or Mount but his flexibility could play a crucial role at some point in the tournament, making him a very useful asset to Southgate.
Due to the larger squad available to Southgate, who has called up 26 players as opposed to the usual 23, his options off the bench will be the envy of many managers in the tournament. He will have plenty of attacking options ready to come on and change a game, not something England could boast about in the past.
Sometimes the best form of defence is attack, especially if England have defenders out injured. This summer any player coming on can do something exciting. As a manager, you always want to look on and think: “Who’s my match winner, who can come on and make something happen?”The methodical Southgate will know this and this is why he has selected his squad so carefully.
England’s experienced spine can ensure they get out of the group but it is the panache and depth of quality on offer from the youngsters that could see the side go the distance, as long as Southgate gets his strategy right.