Leading England to their best World Cup finish for 28 years not only proved Gareth Southgate to be the right man for the job, it also earned him a new contract until 2022 and carte blanche to fully realise his vision for the national team.
It is in that light that his latest squad selection for the Nations League matches against Croatia on Friday and Spain on Monday, which included uncapped youngsters Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and James Maddison, should be viewed.
Southgate has a clear plan that he is committed to and, so far, it has been a breath of fresh air.
He has drawn up a roadmap for the next two or three major tournaments which, having reached the semi-finals in Russia during the summer, England will now have serious ambitions of challenging for: Euro 2020, which takes place in substantial part at Wembley, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and Euro 2024 in Germany.
The likes of Sancho, Mount and Maddison – as well as Nathaniel Chalobah, who was close to a senior international debut when injury struck last year, and the once-capped Ben Chilwell and Harry Winks – are in there because they are seen as players who can have long England careers.
There’s no question about their potential and Southgate as well as under-21 manager Aidy Boothroyd are constantly analysing these players’ qualities and characters. They are known to the England coaches from their appearances with the age-group sides and will have been on the radar of the senior set-up for some time.
Southgate has already had success with this policy. A number of young players that he handed key roles in the England team have matured into top international performers, such as Jordan Pickford, Jesse Lingard and John Stones. Now there is a sprinkling of new faces who have started to make an impact.
It’s tough on the likes of Daniel Sturridge, who has made a great start to the season with Liverpool, scoring four goals in just 205 minutes on the pitch. At 29, however, his mobility may not be up to what England want. Southgate is committed to a very mobile, energetic game and he needs players who are not only technical but also get around the field.
Footballers who are a little longer in the tooth sometimes have habits that don’t fit in with what a manager wants to do. Southgate doesn’t want to be spending half of his time re-moulding older players. Youngsters, on the other hand, are like sponges: they pick things up quickly and are some of these call-ups are so inexperienced that they will take on everything that he says. His authority will be absolute.
Southgate already had a young squad and there is a logic to picking players of a similar age. They will bond more easily over the way they act, their use of social media, what they do away from football – and all this is good for team spirit.
As a 21-year-old going into an England squad where the key figures were in their late twenties or early thirties, it could feel intimidating at times. I felt like I didn’t really speak their language. In picking players closer in age to the current average, Southgate is alleviating that intimidation and making it feel more like a club. It’s all part of the masterplan.