Ok, so the Republic of Ireland didn’t lay a glove on them. But England’s performance in their 3-0 friendly international win at Wembley on Thursday showed just how far Gareth Southgate has brought on the Three Lions during his four-year spell in charge of the national team.
With a whole host of changes being made to protect most of his preferred starting XI for the Nations League clash with Belgium on Sunday, this ought to have been a tougher fixture than the one that played out. England, with a team averaging less than eight caps each at kick-off, looked like a unit that had been together for years.
And that is what Southgate has been most effective at as England manager. He has bucked the trend of many of his predecessors by giving plenty of players an opportunity. When 17-year-old Jude Bellingham came on for the final stages of the game, he became the 42nd debutant since Southgate took over from Sam Allardyce.
In years gone by we had people complaining about the likes of Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello always trotting out their favourites and rarely giving a look-in to up-and-coming talents, but that accusation cannot be fired Gareth’s way. More than that, it has been a very deliberate ploy by the England boss to give younger players a clear pathway into the senior set-up. And the result is that he has options coming out of his ears as Euro 2020 – hopefully – appears on the horizon.
There’s adventure about the way they play football too, with centre-back Tyrone Mings at one stage backheeling the ball to rampaging wing-back Bukayo Saka in the Ireland area as England showed a sass and a confidence that so often goes missing on the biggest stages. If these lot are the future, then it is more than bright.
With Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho alternating constantly behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin there was an interplay which few national teams would have been able to hold. There was a dynamism in wide areas, and the delivery from the wings brought countless chances for players in the middle attacking the ball in the air with relish. That it all came against a hugely underwhelming Ireland side should not be the main takeaway. That England looked so dominant, vibrant and enterprising was of far greater note. And it’s thanks to Southgate.
He now knows that he has at least two players in every position. Whereas normally when tournament football comes around there are concerns over which players might be added to a core 17 or 18 to round off the 23-man squad, Southgate’s headache will be more to do with which of about 30 players he will be leaving behind.
Against Belgium on Sunday, and in the final Nations League Group A2 fixture against Iceland on Wednesday, the manager will undoubtedly revert back to some of his more notable names, with Jordan Pickford, Harry Kane, Eric Dier et al in contention. But the bigger picture is that the younger troops are making their mark. And whether England qualify for the Nations League finals or not, come the Euros and beyond the national team setup looks as vibrant as it has in decades.