It is probably is a little churlish to say so but England were far from convincing in the final Group A game away to Kosovo in Pristina. There is one thing however, that is self-evident: they score goals and plenty of them. To be, at times unconvincing, yet still be able to score four shows a threat to any opponent. England were ruthless in front of goal, even though it took a long time coming as for much of the game the Three Lions looked rather pedestrian. The win over Kosovo however, meant ending 2019 as not just the top-scorers in qualifying for Euro 2020 but with 38 goals in the calendar year, their highest total since achieving the same number in 1966 - who remembers what happened that year?
Can Gareth Southgate’s side bring the European Championship title home next summer? They will certainly be a threat to any team they face and the hope is that the slightly missing cutting edge that saw them lose to Croatia and Holland in the last two tournament semi-finals has been found.
Marcus Rashford celebrates his goal against Kosovo (Reuters)
England, both team and supporters were on the end of great kindness and welcome from the Kosovo nation (left), who wanted to show their gratitude for Britain’s role in ending the struggle with Serbia, so there was an edge missing from the game. One hopes that the hosts were not unduly upset at the score but with England now safely through to the Euros next summer, there are still some questions. The most obvious concerns the art of defending; that has been looked at rather severely both in Russia in 2016 and since. However, is that the real question and is it one for now, at the end of 2019? Or is it more a case of saying that English football is still in the early stages of a rebuilding job? Is the rather unexpected run to the last World Cup semi-final and the same stage of the Nations League a bonus? And if so, is winning Euro 2020 asking too much?
The answer is very possibly. There is a strong case for saying that there is still much to be done to bring the game in England up to the point where the national team can realistically be thought of as genuine contenders (including defending better). The primary task leading up to and including next summer’s tournament is to continue the progress made since Gareth Southgate became manager. His tenure has seen a recognisable plan emerge, not just as senior level but below that also. But it is not just the national teams that need to continue rebuilding but also England’s club sides.
Harry Kane slots home in Pristina
As has been repeatedly said on KJM Today, English clubs must, by hook or by crook, by any means necessary, be compelled to play young English players. Take a look at two examples; Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi. With his birthday on November 7, the latter is still just 19 years old. He hasn’t - yet - looked the part for England but there is no doubting he has enormous talent. His recent long-term injury didn’t help but now that he is fit again, he must be playing regularly for his club’s first team. Likewise Mount. With his birthday coming in January, Mount will be 21. By the time the season ends and the squad is selected for the Euros, Mount needs to have had a full season of competitive football behind him – and at his age, he should be ready for it and he should get it. Will he? That’s another matter. Both play for Chelsea and as has been said already (see related article) the only reason both players are getting a look-in is because Chelsea sacked another foreign manager, appointed an Englishman and are under a ban from signing players – ironically imposed due 150 rule breaches involving 69 academy players over several seasons according to a judgement published by FIFA.
Mason Mount scores England's fourth against Kosovo (Michael Regan)
In other words, getting it wrong with youth players; is it not something of an indictment of what has become established thinking within English football, that clubs spend huge amounts on players from other countries (including youth players) yet seemingly ignore local talent, English talent? Chelsea of course have more than the two players mentioned; Fikayo Tomori made his England debut against Kosovo and he is 21 already. He will be 22 this coming December, an age where he ought to be reasonably well-established within Chelsea’s first team squad. The same applies to Tammy Abraham, also aged 22.
It is to the enormous credit of Chelsea manager Frank Lampard that he has placed his faith in a number of young English players and add Ross Barkley, still only 25 and becoming an increasingly important part of Southgate's midfield, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 23, who is making progress in his return from injury, and you have seven Chelsea players who should either be in or close to the England starting line-up next summer. But all must be playing regularly in Chelsea’s first team – and the same applies to those from other clubs, whether they win anything or not, whether they reach the self-declared Holy Grail of finishing in the top four of the Premier league and thus being in the Champions League next season. Or not, as the case may be.
That also includes Manchester City. They currently sit in fourth place and there is no guarantee they will still be there in May. The club also have another English gem in Phil Foden. Foden will be 20 next May so can justifiably be said to be not quite ‘there’ yet. But if not, then when – he most certainly will not be if he is still watching rather than playing.
Phil Foden (Wikipedia)
Next summer may just be a little early for England. However, by using the tournament as a springboard (or a continuation of the same one) and adding the next Nations League to that, by the time of the next World Cup, Qatar in 2022, England should be genuine contenders. But the clubs must put country first – the curious part to this, and one clubs seem to fail to understand, is that by cultivating the best English players (and managers), they could still be successful in both domestic and European club football.
Yes bring the best of the best to these shores but ask one important question; who are the two most highly thought-of players in world football?
You can answer that yourself but neither are playing in England.
© Kevan James 2019.