It was the kind of moment Gareth Southgate must have envisaged when the idea to call up two players from England’s Under-20 World Cup-winning side was discussed in the aftermath of Friday’s encouraging draw with Germany.
With eight players including Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson having already pulled out of Tuesday’s friendly with Brazil, the addition of Lewis Cook of Bournemouth and Liverpool’s Dominic Solanke was an indication of the kind of long-term planning that is quickly becoming Southgate’s hallmark.
“The first afternoon I saw Lewis just sat having lunch with Joe Hart and Gary Cahill,” the manager said. “It’s a very easy squad to settle into. The senior players are very open, very welcoming. Most of the squad are young anyway and know each other from younger age groups. And so those guys have fitted in off the field no problem, which helps them fit in on the field. And they’re good players. In training, they look fine.”
Whether either Cook or Solanke, whose Premier League experience amounts to only 85 minutes from seven substitute appearances since his move to Anfield in the summer, will be thrown into the deep end against Neymar and co remains to be seen. But after a year that has seen England enjoy unprecedented success at youth level, the gauntlet for future generations has clearly been thrown down a little more than six months before the senior side depart for the World Cup in Russia.
Even the prospect of playing the team Southgate described as “the best in the world” has clearly not persuaded him to veer from his charted course, with Eric Dier to captain a team expected to be brimming with youth once more. “We have to see how the game progresses but I wouldn’t have any hesitation about putting them on the pitch,” he said in reference to Cook, Solanke and the goalkeeper Angus Gunn, who is on loan at Norwich from Manchester City.
“Angus has worked with us in the under-21s, he’s playing in the league. The other two are the captain of the under-20s’ World Cup winners, and the golden boot winner in the under-20s’ World Cup, so they’ve got good pedigree.
“We won’t hesitate to put them on the pitch. The message is that there is opportunity. We want some of these youngsters who have good international pedigree already to have a pathway.”
After handing debuts to all three new faces in his squad against Germany, you have to take Southgate at his word. It must be said a lack of viable alternatives have forced his hand somewhat given that less than a third of all appearances in the Premier League this season have been made by players qualified for England. The admission he had seen more in one game from Joe Gomez, the man of the match Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham “than you might see in many more from other players” was a warning there is to be no turning back now.
Cook, who came through the youth system at Leeds before moving to Bournemouth last year, is a case in point. He has represented England at every age group from under-16 upwards and was also part of the under-17 squad who won the European Championship in 2014. “I think every international game you play is a great learning curve,” Cook said.
“We play these teams with different styles of play and it boosts your knowledge about the game itself. We are trying to get to the stage that you are playing similar to the first team and everyone is playing well. You have to try your hardest to get there and have a good relationship with the players on and off the pitch.”
As far as records go against the country who have won more World Cups than any other, England’s most recent encounters with Brazil could offer similar encouragement. A 2-1 victory at Wembley thanks to goals from Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard in February 2013 and the 2-2 draw in Rio four months later, both under Roy Hodgson, appeared to provide evidence that progress was being made before the last tournament, only for it all to end spectacularly after only two group stage games at Brazil 2014.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored England’s first goal in that friendly at the Maracanã but is now outside the squad, having failed to establish himself for club or country. His experiences should provide a warning for the emerging young players, although Southgate clearly has complete faith they will be different if they are given an opportunity.
“With this particular group, if they didn’t do so well the fall isn’t so far because they are young,” he said. “They’ll learn quickly from it. We know for one or two it’s a bit too early but the experience is invaluable and some of the messaging around is: ‘OK, this is where you are, you’ve played against two of the best in the world but what’s next? What do you need to go away an work on?’ Maybe if that’s an older player, 26 or 27, and it doesn’t happen that’s a little bit more difficult because opportunity to improve is a bit different.
“So I think it does help knowing the individuals. Also you have a closer relationship because you’ve worked with them so there’s a bit more security when they are coming into the group, a bit more comfort, which allows them to relax on the field a bit more.”
After the experiences of the last two major tournaments, that can only be a welcome prospect.