England seek balance between blooding youth and qualification

Andy Hunter at St Mary’s Stadium on 9 September 2019

A key difference between the qualifying campaigns for the 2018 World Cup and 2020 European Championship, other than England currently steamrollering opponents, is Gareth Southgate no longer uses international duty as a parade ground. “We’re not having to trial players now,” he explained. “We’re able to select players who really fit into what we do and we think can take us on to another level.” Tuesday at St Mary’s Stadium could prove a significant moment for that polishing act.

The England manager has been averse to experimentation and issuing caps cheaply, as his starting lineup against Bulgaria on Saturday underlined, but Kosovo represents an ideal opportunity to expose Jadon Sancho and other young talent to the limited challenges Group A has to offer. When a team ranked 120 in the world is considered the toughest obstacle in the way of England’s procession towards Euro 2020 qualification, Southgate can afford to rotate with reduced risk. Sancho and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the most likely beneficiaries at Southampton, where Ben Chilwell, Mason Mount and James Maddison also hope to increase their international experience.

“We’ve got players we need to find out more about, give experience to, but in games where there’s plenty riding on it. Not that we’ve already qualified,” the England manager said. “We need to see people perform under pressure and how they’re going to cope with that. I think that will be the case tomorrow because it will be a proper test for us.”

Southgate believes England have continued to improve since finishing fourth at the World Cup and third in the Nations League but measuring progress cannot be an exact science given the modest opposition his team have swatted aside in this qualifying group. He continues to strive for a balance between blooding young players and securing a place in the finals, however, and the open spaces he envisages against Kosovo will be well suited to a player of Sancho’s ability.

“We’re only seven games away from naming a squad [for the finals],” the England manager added. “We’ve always used every opportunity to try and get the balance right and we know, at the back of our minds, the style of play to qualify is going to be different than playing for a tournament. I always remember Glenn Hoddle talking to us about that when he was coaching. I probably didn’t fully understand exactly what he meant but I’m more aware of that now, because we’re having to open up packed defences more often. I think it will be different tomorrow but, generally, more packed defences and in a tournament, we are going to face high-quality teams. Your defending has got to be better, your defending of counterattacks has got to be much better and you’re playing against better quality defenders so the one-against-one duels are more difficult. The movements need to be sharper, the finishing has got to be better.”

Following Saturday’s routine defeat of Bulgaria the England manager admitted the Nations League had provided sterner tests than qualifying for Euro 2020. Kosovo, he claimed and must hope, will improve the level of competition for a team that will be more expansive with Alexander-Arnold and Sancho included.

The lowly world ranking of Bernard Challandes’ team is considered an anomaly by Southgate on the grounds that Kosovo are a newly formed country. More pertinent is their unbeaten run of 15 internationals. That sequence started in November 2017 and was undoubtedly aided by facing the Faroe Islands, Malta and Azerbaijan twice in their Nations League group. Saturday’s win over Czech Republic, however, allied to victory in Bulgaria in June and a draw with Denmark earlier in the year, underlines Kosovo’s growing confidence and substance. They prevailed against the Czechs without the wingers Arber Zeneli and Milot Rashica, their two leading lights, plus several other regular starters through injury.

On that basis Southgate refuses to bracket Tuesday’s opponents among the weakening band of European teams but he is concerned that the expansion of next summer’s tournament has had an adverse effect on qualification as a spectacle. He explained: “If I look across Europe in general, you’d have to say there isn’t enough jeopardy in the qualification process to make all of the groups as exciting as they could be. We saw the difference that the Nations League presented in terms of excitement for fans and the thrill of that. So, I’m taking tomorrow’s game out of the equation, because I think it will be an enjoyable game, the way they play, the way they press, the passion and enthusiasm they’ve got. But in general I think we have to be careful that we don’t devalue [the competition]. It’s hard because there are so many new countries now and so many countries to involve in the process, but we’ve got to do the right thing for the supporters as well.

“I think you have to maintain the highest possible quality. And I think you have to always think of the fans, who are paying, and of the quality of the product. It’s a difficult one because there have been some smaller teams who’ve grown through that process and, they would say, have added – and their fans have added – to a lot of the experiences as well. But I think there’s always been smaller teams in World Cups. When I grew up, New Zealand playing against Brazil was a tough process for them. But there still seems to be a lot of smaller teams who have got through. It’s just whether the balance is right.”

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