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England National Team

Three talking points for Gareth Southgate’s England following the international break

Martyn Cooke

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Gareth Southgate started his reign as the permanent manager of England with a straight-forward victory against Lithuania in a World Cup Qualifier at Wembley and an honorable defeat in Dortmund in a friendly against Germany.

Here are three key talking points from the latest international break.

Gareth Southgate: Not such a nice guy?

When Gareth Southgate was appointed as the interim manager of the England national team there were many onlookers who claimed that the 46-year-old was “too nice” to handle the pressure and scrutiny that comes with leading your country.

It was a popular line that was trotted out by media outlets, expert pundits and supporters alike. However, Southgate successfully debunked and disproved that misconception when he announced his first squad since being handed the England managerial role on a permanent basis.

Wayne Rooney, who had declared himself fit for Manchester United’s upcoming game against Middlesbrough, and Theo Walcott, arguably in the best form of his career, were both omitted from the 26-man squad that will face Germany and Lithuania. Jermain Defoe, Luke Shaw and Jake Livermore were recalled whilst four other uncapped players were also selected.

Rooney’s exclusion from the international squad came as little surprise. The 31-year-old has struggled for form and fitness at club level whilst he has been little more than a bit-part player at the new look Manchester United that is being moulded by Jose Mourinho. Rooney has scored just five goals across all competitions so far this campaign and has been resigned mostly to making substitute appearances, with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial currently residing above him in the pecking order. In short, there is compelling evidence to suggest that his career at the very top level is coming to an end. However, dropping the country’s all-time leading goal scorer was still a big call for Gareth Southgate to make and it proves that he will not bow down to players with big reputations and high profiles.

Theo Walcott was also axed by Southgate in a ruthless move that suggests that the England manager will not be afraid to dismiss those that fail to perform for him on the pitch. At club level, the winger has been in good form and has scored 17 goals for Arsenal this season – more than any other player selected in the latest international squad. But Southgate had his own opinion: Walcott had produced poor displays in his previous appearances in an England shirt and that there is no room for players that are unable to replicate their club performances.

These were bold, ruthless decisions. Maybe Southgate is not such a nice guy after all.

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A change in formation, a change in direction?

There have been some early signs of progress for England under the stewardship of Gareth Southgate. These include a positive squad selection, a promising performance against Germany and a solid victory in the World Cup Qualifier against Lithuania at the weekend.

The performance in Dortmund on Wednesday evening stands out as the most positive and promising aspect of the last seven days. Southgate deployed a new-look 3-4-3 formation that was fresh, exciting and caused the German side a multitude of problems and it was fascinating to watch an England side playing in a different manner to the rigid 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 systems that previous managers have utilised.

Yes, the short trip onto the continent ended in defeat against an improvised German side, but the team looked more fluid, dangerous, composed and solid for long spells of the contest than at any point in the previous decade.

The 3-4-3 formation suited the personnel at Southgate’s disposal. Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker were given free rein to provide width and make driving runs in wide areas whilst Dele Alli and Adam Lallana had the freedom to express themselves in the final third behind the lone front man. In addition to this, you can see those players that were absent from the team being able to fit seamlessly into the new system. When Harry Kane returns from injury you would imagine that he would be in his element leading the line with the creative talents of Alli and Lallana playing just in behind him.

It is telling that Southgate reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 formation against Lithuania and that the level of performance was relatively unimpressive. England scored two wonderfully worked goals and never looked like losing against opposition that aspired simply to stifle the game and pile ten men behind the ball from the opening minute, but the overall display was uninspiring.

The 3-4-3 formation is the way forward for England – the two displays over the last week clearly demonstrate that fact.

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Rising stars, fallen stars and revived stars

Gareth Southgate’s new era, as the permanent manager of England at least, has thrown up some intriguing questions over the futures of a number of key players.

First, the performances produced by Dele Alli should give supporters hope for the future. The 20-year-old was impressive in Dortmund on Wednesday evening and he continues to develop into a genuine world-class talent. His creativity and innovation in possession should make him key to Southgate’s long-term plans and he is now carrying himself with an obvious air of confidence and self-belief.

Much unlike Joe Hart. The Manchester City goalkeeper is currently plying his trade in Italy as part of a season-long loan deal with Torino after falling out of favour at the Etihad Stadium. However, he looked jittery against Lithuania, on the rare occasions that he was called into action, especially at the end of the first half where John Stones had to clear the ball off the line after Hart had bungled his intervention against Vykintas Slivka. England are certainly not short of talent in the goalkeeping department with Fraser Forster, Jack Butland (who returned to training this week) and Tom Heaton all waiting in the wings – Joe Hart needs to rediscover his mojo before Southgate starts to look at other options.

Jermain Defoe marked his recall to the England squad with a vintage close range finish to take his tally of international goals up to 20. The 34-year-old is certainly not a long-term solution for Southgate but his inclusion was completely justified following his goal scoring exploits for Sunderland. Defoe’s return might just spark a reaction from Daniel Sturridge – who has been struggling for form and fitness so far this campaign.

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Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

England National Team

England youngsters begin to repay Gareth Southgate’s faith

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Gareth Southgate

It has not been a vintage few years for England’s national team. Many have tried to find the root of the problem but perhaps the man most qualified is the head coach of the reigning World Champions, Joachim Low.

Speaking a year after Germany’s success in Brazil (where England were dumped out after finishing bottom of their group), he claimed that England must “face up to the fact [that] their young players don’t get the minutes for their clubs”.

It is widely acknowledged that any green shoots of talent which emerge are trampled down by the Premier League and its preoccupation with expensive foreign signings. This, he added cheerfully, also meant that “in the last few years £100 million has been put back into [German] youth development”.

However, failure in Rio was by no means the peak of English embarrassment, emphatically beaten to that title by the defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016. It was this result that led to Chris Waddle’s memorable complaint that the products of England’s development system are “all pampered, they’re all headphones and you can’t get anything out of them”.

Waddle did it most colourfully, but he was one of many to attribute the defeat to a failure to deal with adversity, an inability to adapt in tough times.

After witnessing another leisurely stroll through qualifying for 2018, this time under Gareth Southgate, England fans will be searching for evidence that the next tournament could be different. Friday night’s match against Germany showed that Southgate is beginning to address the problems.

He introduced five debutants at Wembley, the most notable of which were Chelsea starlets Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who have finally received some top flight game time following loan moves to Swansea City and Crystal Palace, respectively.

Now at less illustrious clubs, their inclusion shows Southgate’s willingness to select players from any team, a stark change in selection policy.

Loftus-Cheek and Abraham will benefit not only from the playing time, but also from the unique experience of playing for a struggling team.

The former, just seven appearances into his first proper season in the league, has managed to impress in a Palace team infamous for suffering the worst ever start to a Premier League campaign and changing their manager after just four games. It appears that Loftus-Cheek is not a player who shrinks in adversity, but one who thrives.

Abraham, similarly, has been thrust into a Swansea side who are current favourites for relegation and his four strikes this season represent over half of the Swans’ league goals. He is raw, but is clearly a player able to perform for a struggling team, something which may well come in handy during his England career.

Gareth Southgate has recognised that the many who fail to break into top teams can still become top players. This is not an issue specific to English players, prospects from overseas have also been spun out by the revolving door transfer policies of moneyed clubs.

In the first of his few appearances for Chelsea, Loftus-Cheek took the place in the squad of a young Egyptian who was subsequently loaned out before being discarded. However, despite failing to cement a first-team place at Chelsea, Mohamed Salah is doing brilliantly at Liverpool. His reaction to that setback is an example to all English youngsters.

The England manager will continue to put his faith in players from ‘unfashionable’ clubs and has called up Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook for Tuesday’s game against Brazil. This should encourage the next generation to step out of their academy comfort zone and seek real footballing experience.

If the precocious talents of England’s all-conquering development sides are encouraged to broaden their footballing horizons, we may finally produce players capable of dealing with the glare of an expectant nation. Rounded professionals not ‘pampered headphones’; music to the ears of England fans.

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Crystal Palace

Has Crystal Palace’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek put himself in contention for World Cup selection?

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It was a game that everybody had written off, labelled as just another fixture in what has been a seemingly endless stream of uninspiring and unwanted international matches over the past months.

The tepid nature of England’s recent matches at the end of their European Championship qualifying campaign left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of the country, and as such the frequent nature of international breaks across the past three months has drained most enthusiasm for the Three Lions.

A number of high-profile withdrawals from the squad did little to whet the appetite ahead of a showdown with old foes Germany either, leaving England’s resources depleted against a world-class side.

Yet whilst Friday’s match did little to inspire before kick-off, with many wondering what Gareth Southgate could possibly take from a match that pitted so many debutants against a strong and well-drilled German outfit, one man ensured that any pre-match script was ripped up and abandoned from the off.

The game may have ended goalless but on-loan Crystal Palace midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek truly lit up Wembley Stadium with an expansive display full of potential and flair to turn a fair few heads.

One of three debutants in the starting line-up, the 21-year-old defied any fears of being overawed by the occasion in front of a packed-out home crowd by putting in an individual display that provided a rare sense of excitement in an England shirt, something not felt since Marcus Rashford’s emergence.

If he felt any signs of nervousness ahead of kick-off then it certainly didn’t show on the pitch, taking just 20 minutes to make his first telling impact with a silky Cruyff turn followed by a sublime nutmeg.

It was a move that exuberated confidence and it set the pattern for Loftus-Cheek’s evening.

He nearly earnt himself a debut assist before half-time, setting Jamie Vardy away with the most delicately chipped ball over an advanced German defence, and it deserved a finish from the striker.

As the match went on it became clear that he held the key to unlocking their opponents, being involved in almost everything good about England’s attacking play, creating two chances in a matter of second-half minutes when he found the late runs of Jake Livermore and Eric Dier in imaginative fashion.

However, aside from these moments, his all-round demeanour showed awful amounts of promise, often holding off German midfielders whilst marauding forwards before threading a pass between a gap.

There was one particular occasion inside the final ten minutes when, despite giving his all for 80 minutes of end-to-end football, he still managed to find the energy within him to burst out of defence and put England back on the front foot, drawing in three players before squeezing a pass away.

The way Loftus-Cheek acquitted himself to the task at hand was admirable and he almost played without fear, showing no signs of being weighed down by the shirt as many others have been in recent years.

He showed signs of elegance and trickery yet he utilised all of his 6’3” frame to bully Germany at times, and the decision to award him man of the match was a fully justified and well-received one.

It is certainly no mean feat to make your international bow against the reigning world champions and leave with the accolade of being the best player on the pitch but it was simply testament to how Loftus-Cheek asserted himself onto proceedings, adding tempo to the hosts’ counter-attacking approach.

Speaking post-match, as relayed by BBC Sport, the youngster was delighted by his debut – and rightly so. He said:

“If we won it would have been better but I’m really happy. It was a really tactical game. It was good for us young players and I certainly learned a lot.

“The manager has said do your best. I had Gareth [Southgate] in charge for nearly three years at the Under-21s and the boys have been great. I’ve settled in really well and they gave me a platform to go out and play.”

Loftus-Cheek’s impressive debut could resonate far deeper than just a one-off friendly match though, not least with next year’s World Cup in Russia gradually growing closer on the horizon.

Yet as a nation we have to be careful.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that a certain someone called Jack Wilshere arrived on the scene at Arsenal before making his England bow and being largely dubbed as the next big British prospect.

Both expectation and injury have significantly stalled his career – almost to the point of no return considering his struggles to get into Arsene Wenger’s side – and it is important not to get too carried away about Loftus-Cheek’s potential despite his very impressive performance against the Germans.

That isn’t to say that he shouldn’t make the World Cup squad though, as based on Friday’s display against one of the best teams in the world the Palace midfielder is ready to take this huge step up.

Addressing thoughts of the World Cup, Loftus-Cheek remained coy, though:

“To go to the World Cup it’s a long season and I still have to improve. I have to keep learning and getting better and hopefully there’s a chance to get on the plane.”

Whilst Loftus-Cheek himself confessed that he needs to continue learning if he harbours any hope of making England’s World Cup squad, supporters alike will pray his development doesn’t stall.

The next step of his England career – after the friendly against Brazil on Tuesday – remains unclear though, with Alli almost certain to return to the fold and reclaim his role as the attacking midfielder.

Loftus-Cheek’s involvement then depends on how prepared Southgate is to move away from his formation used in qualifying and the usage of both Jordan Henderson and Dier – two very defensively-minded players – and whether the ex-Under 21 boss will be bold and drop one of them from his team.

Either way – and even if Loftus-Cheek doesn’t earn a starting berth – his impact as a squad player could be monumental, and there simply aren’t many homegrown players that can match up to him right now.

It’s likely that his competition for a World Cup berth will come in the shape of Wilshere himself, Jake Livermore and fellow debutant against Germany Jack Cork, and there’s nothing about those midfielders that Loftus-Cheek should be concerned about in his fight for a place on the plane to Russia.

Loftus-Cheek’s sudden emergence onto the international scene shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise though as he’s been a rare bright spark in a troublesome start to the year for Crystal Palace.

The 21-year-old has been the player to drive Roy Hodgson’s side forward, creating nine Premier League chances in his nine appearances – a tally only bettered by Yohan Cabaye and Andros Townsend – and his 83% passing accuracy is the highest of anyone to feature eight times or more.

He has also shown his tendency to be penetrative and direct on the ball – as he proved at Wembley Stadium – by completing 23 of 31 take-ons, averaging just less than four direct dribbles each match.

It’s this attacking intent and consistent ability to pull off his daring moves that will excite most, potentially able to add a new box-to-box dimension in England’s midfield that’s long been vacant.

Nobody will argue that he’s far too good to be playing for a relegation-battling side but the concept of regular football until the end of the 2017-18 campaign will only be a good thing in his efforts to make Southgate’s World Cup squad, able to continue progression against top opposition each week.

Loftus-Cheek’s prior relationship with Southgate from their time spent together at Under-21 level will undoubtedly fall into his favour and it’ll be interesting to see how the upcoming months unfold.

It’s seemingly a quintessentially English thing to do when a player impresses on the international scene, to hype them up and set them up for a fall, but something seems different about Loftus-Cheek.

He has the manner of a man that’s been patiently waiting for his chance on both a domestic and national front – after all, he’s only made 30 Premier League appearances over the course of the past four seasons – and during that time he appears to have built up a thoroughly encouraging attitude.

As with anything, time will tell as to whether he has what it takes at the top level. But for now we should all give credit where credit is due, and look forward to the development of a fresh homegrown prodigy.

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England National Team

Three talking points from England’s World Cup qualifying win in Lithuania

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England

Gareth Southgate’s England ended their World Cup qualifying campaign in Group F unbeaten on Sunday with a 1-0 win in Lithuania, Harry Kane’s first-half spot-kick enough to secure all three points after his Spurs teammate Dele Alli was upended by Ovidjus Verbickas inside the penalty area.

In truth, that was the only real highlight of the 90 minutes, Southgate’s experimental line-up failing to excite in a dour display in Vilnius, following up Thursday night’s below par showing against Slovenia at Wembley which had rubber-stamped the Three Lions’ place in Russia.

The main talking point of the night came from Southgate’s three-man central defence, including a debut for Leicester City defender Harry Maguire, whilst fellow debutant Harry Winks impressed after being handed his first senior cap in midfield.

Despite England boss Southgate facing various critics on social media over his inclusion of the Tottenham youngster in his squad following the injury forced withdrawals of Fabian Delph and Phil Jones, the midfielder was a rare bright spark in a dead-rubber game for England, and was only denied a debut international goal by a flying save from Lithuania goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus after the interval.

Despite a qualifying record of nine wins and one draw from ten matches, there still appears to be much room for improvement for England, who only managed four shots on target.

They may well have been punished had they been facing stronger opposition, with Jack Butland required to intervene on two notable occasions, including a flying save from his own defender Michael Keane following a botched clearance.

But what were the biggest talking points of a wet and windy night in Vilnius as a World Cup qualifying campaign that looks impressive on paper drew to a quiet close?

Experimental England remain unbeaten but laboured against mediocre opposition

With qualification secured, Gareth Southgate handed starts to some of the fringe players in his England squad as he looks to explore more of his options in a bid to identify his strongest starting XI and, with it, his most effective formation and tactical set-up.

Jack Butland, Kieran Trippier, Aaron Cresswell, and Michael Keane all started alongside debutants Winks and Maguire, with Dele Alli recalled after completing a one-match ban. Yet, far from the urgency and hunger to impress that many expected, England made hard work of it against a markedly average Lithuania.

Kane’s 27th minute penalty was England’s first effort on target in a match where they only managed four, and they failed to stamp their authority on the match as the Lithuanians themselves carved out half chances of their own as the game wore on.

In attack, there seemed to be a real lack of forward intent, with Marcus Rashford – one of England’s bright sparks in the win over Slovenia – often opting to run the channels and lose the ball amongst a flurry of Lithuanian defenders.

Few looked willing to gamble in the penalty area in support of lone striker and focal point Harry Kane, with midfielders, such as Jordan Henderson, opting to sit deep rather than venture forward in the aim of hurting the hosts.

The penalty award was a rare moment of craft, with Cresswell getting up in support and Alli’s impressive movement carving open an opportunity from which he drew the foul inside the box. That may well have been enough to secure the points on the night, but does little to stoke the fires of optimism ahead of clashes with stronger opposition in Russia.

The statistics seem impressive, but the performance offers little to write home about. With 30 players having been used by both Sam Allardyce and Gareth Southgate in this qualifying campaign alone, too much reshuffling and little stability and continuity may be one cause of the team’s ills.

On a more positive note, Kane’s strike was his 15th this season for club and country, and his seventh in his previous six appearances for England. The Spurs star will almost certainly be the man that Southgate elects to lead the line in Russia.

More defensive re-shuffling to follow?

Southgate rightfully waited until qualification was secure before re-shuffling the pack in Vilnius, opting to experiment with a 3-4-3 set-up akin to Antonio Conte’s title-winning Chelsea side of last season.

Michael Keane, John Stones and debutant Harry Maguire were the starring trio in the defensive line, and although relatively solid there were a few hiccups along the way.

Jack Butland – handed his opportunity in place of regular Number One Joe Hart – was required to keep out a miscued Michael Keane clearance which may well have ended in an own goal, and had to be alert to cover an 11th-minute flick from Davydas Sernas at his near post, before getting well behind a Deivydas Matulevicius effort after the interval.

On a positive note, Stones looked assured in possession and accurate with his passing within the back three, whilst Maguire enjoyed a relatively trouble free night, unlucky not to have grabbed himself a goal in the third minute from a headed opportunity.

Gareth Southgate has already hinted at the possibility of using the formation again in future, and the three who acted as guinea pigs on Sunday will have done their prospects no real harm here.

Its true effectiveness will be given a far sterner test in the coming weeks, however, with friendlies against Germany and Brazil at Wembley next on the agenda.

Harry Winks justifies inclusion in impressive debut

Gareth Southgate’s decision to include Harry Winks in his squad, even as a replacement for the injury hit duo of Phil Jones and Fabian Delph, raised several eyebrows.

The youngster was handed his international debut having only four starts for Tottenham under his belt, but he justified that inclusion with a man-of-the-match performance, playing a match high 98 passes and offering England a different dimension in the centre-midfield area, which is lacking in regular starters Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson.

It will certainly give Southgate a helpful selection headache for the upcoming games, even if Winks had to stand out amidst so much mediocrity on show in Vilnius.

He brought the bite that England fans expected from the rest of the side when he was allowed to go forward, and appeared far more adventurous than his more seasoned international teammates.

Having spent most of the match sitting deep to accommodate the ineffective Henderson, Southgate could do worse than give Winks game time in a more advanced midfield role.

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