Heart Of Football

High time Southgate turned to the young

In the grand hall of the Kremlin, the Hand of Maradona kindly helped England to a benign draw for the 2018 World Cup. Almost as benign as the one the handed to the hosts, Russia.

A conspiracy theorist can only wonder.

But Gareth Southgate is no conspiracist. The England manager is old school, as guarded as any diplomat. "We haven't done too much research on African teams," he said. "Now is the time to start."

Nor does the Football Association have much knowledge on Panama. Again Southgate promises to do his homework by the time England face the central American first-timers next June.

"We've been good at writing off teams and getting beaten by them, haven't we?" he added. "We have just come from two tournaments where Costa Rica and Iceland knocked us out."

The elephant in the room, the heavyweight in Group G, is an altogether different proposition because no one doubts that Belgium could beat England when they meet in the final group game in Kaliningrad on June 28.

Playing Belgium is like playing your own brother - your better brother. There are Belgians in most English Premier League line-ups, and at the top end.

"I lived 21 years in the English game," said Belgium manager Roberto Martinez. "And there are 25 players of Belgium in English football right now."

Manchester City team-mates John Stones and Kevin de Bruyne will be on opposing sides at the World Cup Finals for England and Belgium.
Manchester City team-mates John Stones and Kevin de Bruyne will be on opposing sides at the World Cup Finals for England and Belgium. PHOTO: REUTERS

The trap that England have been in ever since the Premier League, with all its millions, became the money pot to world players is a huge reason for the team's failure to win a major tournament since 1966.

Not only did Martinez make his name and his fortune playing and coaching in England, but also one of his assistants, a certain Thierry Henry, was a legend throughout his time at Arsenal.

It is bad enough giving houseroom to Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and... stop me there if you hold any affection for the old country and the game she gave to the world.

You all know, from the EPL broadcasts that have most of the world hooked, that Courtois stands almost 2 metres and has an extraordinary calm, as well as the longest reach, of any Chelsea goalkeeper ever.

England have nothing to lose. The overly vaunted Golden Generation of Beckham, Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard failed on the world stage . 

And you know that Hazard on his day is the most mesmeric creative source in English football. And that nobody passes the ball better than de Bruyne.

Southgate does not have to do homework on these, or the rest of what everyone is calling the Golden Generation of Belgian football. Heavens, the England manager would take reserves off the Belgian bench if he could.

They should, barring banana skins, be playing for top spot when they meet at the end of the group. The heavy roadblocks of Germany, Brazil or France in the quarter-finals will come into view only once - only if - the big two do not trip over Tunisia and Panama.

Before any of that, Southgate has two more enemies within. He has to communicate to England's players the dangers of complacency and of boredom.

There will be plenty of time to address those once the players settle into their base in the Gulf of Finland, near St Petersburg.

Before any of that, Southgate must choose his squad. His leanings are to trust the younger English players, some of whom he helped to nurture while he coached at youth level.

When Wayne Rooney finished off his hat-trick for Everton last week, including the most extraordinary shot from beyond the halfway line over the head of Joe Hart, it was a goal that left its mark on the transition of English football.

Rooney, the country's record scorer, called time on his national-team career months ago. Yet he has more knowledge, and greater talent, than any of the players available today.

His strike against West Ham exposed Hart's poor positioning, and the 30-year-old goalkeeper has made elementary errors for England in the past.

Hart might cling to hopes of going to Russia, but Stoke's Jack Butland (24) and Everton's Jordan Pickford (23) are knocking heavily now on his door.

So it is in the outfield too. The burgeoning buoyancy at the FA is coming almost totally from youth. Last May, England won the Fifa World U-20 championship in South Korea, and in October the English boys came from two goals down to overwhelm Spain in the final of the World U-17 Cup in India.

It was tempting to ask if England could possibly be the new Spain, or the new Germany - nations that had won the last two World Cups and sowed the seeds for those triumphs in their youth structure.

Indeed, the only other country that ever held both the world U-20 and U-17 titles in the same year was Brazil. And after England knocked Brazil out of the younger age-group tournament in India, Brazil's youth coach Carlos Amadeu said:

"We couldn't live with them. In terms of quality, England were miles ahead of us."

England, miles ahead of Brazil?

Amadeu was not overstating the case. A lad from Manchester City, Phil Foden, is so gifted, so clever and so precious that even with his abundance of riches at City, Pep Guardiola has put him in the Champions League squad.

Another youth, Liverpool's Rhian Brewster, scored a hat-trick in the 5-2 hammering of Spain.

However, the presumption on youth is clouded by the Premier League's mass import policy. How does Guardiola give playing time to Foden when his squad possesses de Bruyne, David Silva, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure and others in midfield where Foden wants to play?

Who should Jurgen Klopp leave out among Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Daniel Sturridge and the 19-year-old Dominic Solanke if he wants to give Brewster a run?

England have nothing to lose. The overly vaunted Golden Generation of Beckham, Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard failed on the world stage. So be bold, Gareth, and promote the youth?

It's tempting. But, a word of warning. The Brazil boys who won their youth double in 2003 should have matured nicely over the following decade. What happened? Brazil 1, Germany 7 in the 2014 World Cup on Brazil soil.

Youth football is a start, the end product is a man's game.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline 'High time Southgate turned to the young'. Print Edition | Subscribe