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.