There was plenty of confusion about the UEFA Nations League when details of the new international tournament were revealed, and so you can forgive fans and the media for not taking the competition seriously.
But knowing that there is a very pertinent reason for trying to win the thing, i.e. automatic qualification for Euro 2020, it has been something of a surprise to see Gareth Southgate name such an inexperienced squad for the crucial games against Spain and Croatia this month.
The Three Lions are already six points behind Spain in Group 4, and so nothing but two victories will do if they are to make further progress in the tournament.
Southgate’s hand has been forced somewhat with injuries to Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Fabian Delph, while the likes of Adam Lallana and Ruben Loftus-Cheek struggle for game time at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively.
But even so, six of his 25-man squad, which was announced yesterday, are uncapped, with an average age of just 23.9.
So who are these new faces, and do England have any hope of upsetting the odds against Croatia and Spain?
|Jack Butland||Stoke City||25||9|
|Luke Shaw||Manchester United||23||8|
|John Stones||Manchester City||24||35|
|Harry Maguire||Leicester City||25||14|
|Kieran Trippier||Tottenham Hotspur||28||15|
|Danny Rose||Tottenham Hotspur||28||25|
|Kyle Walker||Manchester City||28||41|
|James Madison||Leicester City||21||0|
|Harry Winks||Tottenham Hotspur||22||1|
|Eric Dier||Tottenham Hotspur||24||34|
|Forward||Jadon Sancho||Borussia Dortmund||18||0|
|Marcus Rashford||Manchester United||20||26|
|Raheem Sterling||Manchester City||23||44|
|Harry Kane||Tottenham Hotspur||25||32|
The Children are the Future
An eye-catching start to life at Leicester City has earned James Maddison his first England call.
The attacking midfielder has contributed three goals and two assists for the Foxes this term, and created more goalscoring opportunities than any other Premier League player. The maturity and poise the 21-year-old has shown clearly hints that he could be an asset at international level.
The story of Jaden Sancho is borderline Roy of the Rovers stuff. As a (even more) younger man he decided to leave the bright lights of Man City behind in a quest for first team football elsewhere.
He rocked up at Borussia Dortmund, and after biding his time the 18-year-old has become a fixture in the Germans’ starting eleven this term, serving up five assists and appearing in both Champions League matches.
The third young gun to watch is Mason Mount, the Chelsea midfielder who has spent time out on loan at Vitesse Arnhem and Derby County.
He’s already bagged five goals this term, and his technical ability is such that he should be able to make the transition from the Championship to international level.
That said, it’s one thing doing the business at club level, but pulling on the famous Three Lions shirt – and tackling World Cup finalists Croatia and the always classy Spain – is another matter entirely.
Revenge is a Dish Best Served Croatian
In addition to the aforementioned trio, there have been recalls for a series of other young talents such as Ross Barkley, Harry Winks and Nathaniel Chalobah.
As such, it’s a young squad featuring a handful of players who can’t even get a game at club level, and so the onus really is on the experienced old heads to lead their youthful teammates to glory.
Southgate can, if he chooses, pick a side that resembles something like his starting line-up at the World Cup. He will stick with the 3-4-3 formation that served them so well in Russia, and just hope that this time against Croatia – who they tackle on Friday October 12 in Rijeka – the luck is on their side.
Jordan Pickford will presumably retain the gloves, with Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose or Luke Shaw taking up the wing back berths.
Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire are all fit and so will surely start in defence, and they will be protected by Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier in midfield.
One of Southgate’s toughest choices will be whether to pick a third midfielder. Does he hand the shirt to Barkley, who is in and out of the Chelsea side, or hand it to one of those young guns who have impressed this season: Maddison, Mount or Sancho?
Alternatively, he could utilise Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as narrow wingers alongside Harry Kane.
That is Southgate’s preferred XI, you would think, but of course concessions will have to be made for the Spain game, which takes place in Seville on Monday October 15.
And so the manager may opt for a ‘mix and match’ style starting eleven featuring both experienced campaigners and some of his young upstarts.
You can’t help but think that plays into the hands of Croatia, who were walloped 0-6 by Spain last time out.
But they will be better on home soil, you can be rest assured of that, and they will fancy their chances against a second-string England side.
The bookies have them as a mere 9/5 shot to win this match, but the real gift to punters is the 10/11 Draw No Bet mark, which basically gives us a free run at the Croatians avoiding defeat against one of the youngest squads England have ever cobbled together.