During his personal commentary uploaded to Instagram, former England midfielder Jimmy Bullard called the sequence leading up to Raheem Sterling’s opening goal against Spain “one of the best goals we’ve ever scored.” It consisted of some 17 passes, moving Spain’s defensive setup from side to side, then drawing them out of their shape with a one-two combination between Ross Barkley and Jordan Pickford at the edge of the keeper box. On the surface, that mini-exchange was nothing out of the ordinary, but it was defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets, responsible for protecting back four, who found himself as Spain’s furthest forward player pressing Pickford. One long ball to Harry Kane and two passes later, Sterling walked in his first goal for the national team in three years.
While the true purpose of passing and positional play may have gotten lost in its ubiquity, that sequence highlighted sideways and backwards passing can open up spaces for attack minded players to exploit. Sterling’s opener was only the beginning. Marcus Rashford added a second goal as England eschewed the passing by going direct with a long ball from Pickford to Kane. The two goals highlighted the melding of a technical calmness that has been the focus of a grassroots rebuild with the direct center forward play already in England’s stylistic DNA.
And how one result changes the story and mood surrounding the perception of a side. One week ago, the narrative of the national team was on its player development with 18 year old winger Jadon Sancho the focus. Now, after being the first England side to win at Spain since 1987, with the youngest national team starting lineup since 1959, the focus shifts to where the win ranks in their recent history. Although it may be wise to slow down, as Spain manager Luis Enrique has felt the swings of a national team first hand. After beating Croatia a month ago, Enrique and his Real Madrid core paved a new path for international dominance. Since then, Real Madrid are struggling to score in addition to Enrique losing at home. Is there any other sport in which one can go from genius to ordinary as quickly?
Immediacy aside, England’s draw against Croatia and win over Spain were grounded in the reality of youth player development, and not just from their teenagers. Despite his struggles at the World Cup and his six year professional career, it is important to remember that Sterling is still 23 years old. He’s spoken of his own growth and maturity as a winger, focusing on effectiveness over aesthetics as Pep Guardiola smoothed out the little details such as how to dribble and maintain his top speed. Sterling, who scored 23 goals last season, stated that his main focus this season is to be a goal threat as opposed to beating defenders 1 on 1. Those small changes in technique and mentality translated to production for both club and country, as well as rumors of a Real Madrid transfer move.
Although this was overlooked as the hype centered around former Manchester City prospect Sancho. Sancho left Guardiola’s side in 2017 for Borussia Dortmund in search of playing time, and now leads the top European leagues with six assists. He’s spoken of his connection with Marco Reus, and how the World Cup winner helped him be more mature on the ball. His impact at this young age caused a mini-existential moment in examining the best path for English players to develop.
Paul Ince said he was “fed up” with watching talented U-23s players sit on the bench with their clubs, and Sancho is the best example of how a player can thrive within the developmental culture of the Bundesliga (there are six other English prospects in Germany). And Sancho’s move abroad was as much psychological as it was about his street-honed ability. Then a 13 year old in Watford’s academy, he stated his goal was to play for a top European club. His youth coach remembers a motivated player who never shied away from challenges of playing up. Sterling also credited Sancho’s belief in himself, as the two represent a wider movement of flair players from London moving into top clubs.
There’s an easy contrast with former Manchester City and U-17 World Cup winning teammate Phil Foden. Sancho left for Germany; Foden stayed with Manchester City. While Sancho won the plaudits with his substitution against Croatia, Foden was playing with England’s U-21 side. The obvious analysis then is that Sancho made the right decision in a search for playing time, but there must be some value in learning under a manager like Guardiola and competing alongside Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne during training. Guardiola remarked how due to his diminutive size, Foden must be quicker in his mind and the feet to “find a solution” (U-21 manager Aidy Boothroyd compared his ability to wiggle out of tight spaces to a “little eel”). Is there any better place to learn how to problem solve as a fleet footed midfielder than with a midfield comprised of similarly skilled players?
“Over the years, I haven’t really been coached much,” said Chelsea midfielder Ross Barkley when describing the impact new manager Maurizio Sarri has had on his form this season.
In describing his own playing history moving between an attacking midfielder to a deep lying playmaker, Barkley could have been another young, technical Premier League midfielder who never fulfilled their potential by specializing in a role. Barkley credits Sarri’s philosophy and attention to detail for his improvement, and we previously discussed the impact of top foreign managers adding their possession-oriented ideas to an already nuanced Premier League. In complementing how much Barkley had improved this season, Sarri noted how he already had the technical and physical ability, so he instead focused on developing his tactical awareness to play in a midfield trio.
And despite the humility and tactical flexibility displayed by their World Cup run, his Chelsea teammate Marcos Alonso admitted that there’s a creative void within the England midfield that Barkley could fill. Alonso discussed how opponents knew Southgate’s side didn’t have a player in their side who “made others play” and “used the ball” like Barkley, thus creating predictable attacking patterns.And it was his chip over the top of Spain’s defense that lead to Sterling’s third goal.
The familiarity of formations between Chelsea and England created a seamless transition for Barkley. In speaking of a new beginning for his side after the euphoria of their World Cup run and after signing a new contrast through 2022, Southgate symbolically switched to a traditional 4-3-3 from the 3-5-2 formation that brought success. Tactically, he wanted to be able to pressure opposition further up the field with three strikers, while also noticing that the three center back formation invited opponents to pin back England’s wingbacks on the defensive line with three attackers. To fill out his squad, Southgate dipped further into the Premier League talent pool. 21-year-old left back Ben Chilwell of Leicester City made his first start for England against Croatia. Midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah became the first Watford player to play for England in over 30 years.
Former Brighton and Hove left back Liam Rosenoir remarked that there was a generation of English players left behind by not leaving their parent club sooner. We can name players from the last decade who we saw in glimpses, but never turned out quite like we expected. That’s partly what captured the imagination during their semifinal run last summer, a conglomeration of factors ranging from the right manager to the right style to the right player development coming together. And whether going abroad or staying in England, it’s not about having one set pathway for success but instead opening a variety of channels that lead to development and opportunities. Then results, even historic ones, take care of themselves.