There was a time, not too long ago, when the future of the English national team looked desolate, bleak and barren.
Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and the rest of the so-called golden generation (more of a ‘rusty bronze’ generation, as it turned out) had hung up their boots and quality replacements were, to say the least, a little thin on the ground.
English players were being frozen out of the top teams by overseas imports, and those that were getting Premier League game time were never likely to be more than mediocre on the international stage.
Fast forward to the current era and that problem has evaporated. A quiet revolution has taken place over the past few years and the production line of highly-talented English players has gone into overdrive.
Now Gareth Southgate has an abundance of exciting, raw, young talent to choose from. Every time he sits down to pick a squad it seems like one or two new stars have burst into the limelight, screaming ‘pick me, pick me’ as they take the Premier League by storm.
Well, that’s great, I hear you cry.
Sadly, no, I don’t think it is. Because I suspect this hyperactive conveyor belt of fresh talent is starting to have a negative impact on Gareth Southgate and England.
There are now so many players to choose from that the national team is utterly devoid of continuity. Debuts are being handed out like confetti and players are not getting the opportunity to form any sort of understanding. Getting an England call up has become the rule rather than the exception.
Some may say what Southgate is doing as sensible – giving everyone a chance in games that don’t hold massive importance in the greater scheme of things.
But to me this looks more like dithering and indecisiveness. A ‘but what if this one is better than that one’ approach that is turning into an endless search for greener grass.
In his time in charge, Southgate has handed debuts to more than 40 players, many of them youngsters with just a few top-level games to their name. Is that really necessary? Shouldn’t players need to earn their place in the England team with consistent, sustained, high-level performances?
Bring back the B team. England used to have one, back in the days of tight shorts and dodgy perms, and it worked rather well
If, for example, Southgate sees, and I am picking two names at random from a very long list here, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish as his long-term central midfield pairing, then they should be given a run of five or six games playing in tandem to see if they can build some sort of understanding.
As it is now, they come in for a game or maybe two, then it’s time to hand a debut to some other young player who happens to have had a good month for his club. And he will then give way to the next player on Southgate’s never-ending list of potential internationals.
But I do have a solution that will need Southgate and the FA to show a little bit of bottle, but which, if handled properly, could make a huge difference – bring back the B team.
England used to have one, back in the days of tight shorts and dodgy perms, and from what I can recall, it worked rather well. So, let’s dust it off and bring it back into play.
Get Southgate to pick a squad of 23 players as of today, and say this is my current first team, my A team, the team I would take to a tournament if there was a tournament to take them to.
This first 23 would have the chance to form some sort of team spirit and bond. They would have time to work closely on tactics and plans without wondering if they were about to be summarily dropped for the new flavour of the month.
Meanwhile, he would also pick a second 23 that would be made up of debutants, prospects and quality players who are too old for the under-21s but need to show what they can do on the international stage.
Of course, moving forward he could still swap players between the two squads as he saw fit. And I am not suggesting that to get to the A team you would absolutely have to have been picked in the B team first.
But at least having this backup squad would give some sort of structure to the whole situation while simultaneously pandering to Southgate’s strong desire to see how every English player on the planet operates, first-hand, in the flesh.
Sure, it would probably mean a B manager is needed, but that isn’t a big deal, and may, in fact, be the perfect place to start grooming Southgate’s eventual replacement. And it would mean extra fixtures, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to find teams willing to play the Three Lions Lite team every now and then.
Simply put, if England are currently blessed with enough players for two squads, then let’s create those two squads and make the absolute most of it while we can.
Having all the possible ingredients around him at the same time should make the recipe for success easier to decipher. And it’s got to be a better plan than the current one which seems to be to give a ‘trial’ to anyone who is a) English, and b) has completed a pass in a recent game.
The future of the England team is incredibly bright. But with every passing debut it looks more and more like Southgate has no idea how to make the best of the talent he has available.
My B team plan may just be the solution he needs to make the best of this platinum generation.
“I have just finished reading your article last Sunday, which was very interesting and factual. I was a football referee way back in 1960-61 season in Malta. From then on, the laws of the game were amended many times. I fully agree with what you said about VAR.
“The penalty that you spoke about was a very harsh and controversial decision, as if I am not mistaken there is a clause in the laws of the game that clearly states that if there is no intention there is no offence.
“Thank you once again for your very interesting article and I wish your team every success.” Victor Ciangura, e-mail.
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