Gareth Southgate allowed himself a fist-pump before striding back down the Amex Stadium tunnel.
His England Under-21 side had just come from behind to beat Switzerland in the last 10 minutes of their Euro 2017 qualifier in November, thanks to a substitute, Duncan Watmore, who scored one goal and created two more to transform the mood and hand Southgate a crucial, if slightly flattering, 3-1 win.
Afterwards the manager swatted away questions about his side’s patient approach. “The way we keep the ball tires the opposition out,” he said. “We’re unbeaten, we’re top of the group and I firmly believe in the way we go about our work.”
Four months later England have built on that November win. Saturday night’s 1-1 draw away to the same opponents should perhaps have been another victory – Chuba Akpom scored after Demarai Gray’s brilliant dribble before Switzerland’s late equaliser – but it was another step forward following a disappointing European Championship campaign last summer.
From the natural churn of under‑21s football Southgate has quickly established a settled side. After beating the United States Under-23s in a September friendly his new batch have earned three wins and two draws from the opening five games of their 2017 qualifying campaign, conceding only two goals, to take a commanding position three points clear at the top of Group 9.
The team have a distinct style. Chelsea’s talented midfielder Lewis Baker, on loan at Vitesse Arnhem, dovetails with the metronomic passing of the captain, Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse, in midfield. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s touch is used primarily in the No10 role behind the pace and power of Hull City’s Arsenal-loanee, Akpom, who has three qualifying goals to his name. Calum Chambers and Matt Targett have started every game, usually alongside Dominic Iorfa and Nathaniel Chalobah – all defenders who like to play out from the back – while Sunderland’s Jordan Pickford has performed confidently in goal.
This unbeaten sequence has been underpinned by a cohesive, functioning team rather than individual brilliance. Southgate’s England tend to press high up the pitch and prioritise keeping the ball. They had 68% possession against Switzerland at the Amex, the same figure against Bosnia in the previous match and 73% against Kazakhstan the game before.
In truth this passing style has led to some periods of controlled but underwhelming football. At a time when the Premier League leaders have shunned the possession model, it can seem as if England’s strategy is to play catch-up with someone running the wrong way. But as Watmore’s introduction and Gray’s debut performance showed, the squad has the pace and direct attacking instincts to change the tempo and open defences, and is getting the results that should qualify them for more tournament experience.
Despite this success Southgate has hinted at a common problem of the national coach that arguably affects him more severely than Roy Hodgson: that of players actually playing. “I don’t think we can underestimate the lack of [club] playing time for some of these lads,” he warned.
Gray is a fascinating case in point. The talented winger caught Championship eyes last season at his hometown club, Birmingham City, and carried that form into this campaign as a regular starter. Then, in January, Premier League clubs came swooping. Gray signed for Leicester City and, understandably, he has struggled to hold down a place in Claudio Ranieri’s starting XI in competition with the in-form Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton.
At 19 there is clearly no rush, yet it will be interesting to see whether he can find his feet at a team which will be playing Champions League football next season. Stagnation is a curse that has befallen many young England players and Southgate’s hands will be tied if players like Gray do not play. As Hodgson this week said of Everton’s 21-year-old talent John Stones: “To use him he has to play well enough to break into his club side … and I can’t do anything about that.”
There are varieties of career status – and stasis – in the current Under-21 squad, with a limited impact on the English top flight: only five of the squad who travelled to Switzerland have started more than five Premier League games this season. But the Championship continues to be a useful proving ground – Akpom and Wolves’ Iorfa are examples this season – and there is a growing contingent learning their trade abroad.
And then there are cases like Dele Alli – who made two Under-21s appearances before stepping up to senior level – and Marcus Rashford. Given an unlikely opportunity at Manchester United and the faith of his manager, the 18-year-old already has five professional goals, with Arsenal and Manchester City among his scalps. He made his debut for England Under-20s last week and promotion to Southgate’s group seems a natural next step, should his sensational start continue.
Whether shining in the top tier or plugging away in the reserves, the Under-21s seem more important than ever as a chance to gain experience away from the glare of the senior international spotlight where the pressures are incomparable – you probably won’t, for example, find Wayne Rooney giving a #selfiematchreport on the pitch anytime soon, like Ward-Prowse did following the Switzerland draw.
It is not just an environment for players to develop. As that biennial spring-time optimism lurks seductively around England’s international scene, Southgate is also quietly thriving. Ten years on from beginning his only club management role at Middlesbrough, making game-changing substitutions like Watmore’s at the Amex can only improve his ability in charge of England’s blossoming next generation.
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