Exciting. Energetic. Talented. But where is the experience? Only five players have played at a World Cup before, and between them they have made only nine starts. Lionel Messi alone has made 15. Cristiano Ronaldo has made 13. Spanish legends Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta have made 23 appearances between them. All of whom will be playing at this year’s edition.
So, what hope do England have, then? The mission objective for these young players will be to compete against ageless World Cup talents, with many having no experience whatsoever of senior tournament football on the international stage.
Well, Southgate will be encouraged by the club performances of his 23 players. Star men Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling both enjoyed their most successful goalscoring seasons in the league last year as they netted 30 and 18 goals respectively. In spite of these impressive stats, both players failed to shine at the last major tournament: Euro 2016. Despite playing for 240 minutes, Kane could only manage four shots on target the entire tournament with Sterling making even less of an impact, getting a single shot off in three matches.
What can often be said of youthful teams is they are fearless, and this is the stance that Southgate is taking when challenging his critics. With only three players in the squad currently aged 30 or over, most of the players have their entire careers ahead of them and by no means is this tournament a ‘make or break’ for them. For many teams such as Argentina and Spain, there is additional pressure to perform well in Russia as it will likely be the last tournament legends like Messi and Iniesta compete in.
England fans who have waited four years for this month of football to come around will not be impressed by a group of players who are using this competition as a learning curve. Southgate rebuffed this claim, however, arguing that anything is possible with England and it “wouldn’t be acceptable” to write off England at any tournament.
From a personal perspective, I do not believe this year’s batch is better than or even equal to squads we have assembled in recent years. However, there are, without question, match-winners within the 23-man list. Yes, many will argue that Adam Lallana or Jack Wilshere should be featured due to their unquestionable talent. But with them both being out of favour with their club sides, Southgate was right to leave them out.
We must turn to those players who not only have shone in the Premier League this year, but who also will suit Southgate’s personal brand of football. If he can get the most out of his three or four star players, there is no doubt that this England team could go far in this competition. Yes, there is an obvious lack of experience and yes, there is less strength in depth to the squad than many other nations, but the sheer quality that will be featured in our starting 11 will give us a chance to win any match against any opposition.