Gareth Southgate will enjoy rare advantages as he prepares the England football team to face Croatia in their opening match of the European Championships on Sunday.
The England manager can call on players who embody a blend of youth and experience, as well playing at least three matches at home at Wembley Stadium, London. It is a confluence of factors that provides, perhaps, just perhaps, the nation’s best shot at lifting a major international trophy since winning the World Cup at the same arena in 1966.
“We need good professionals, tactically-savvy players,” said Southgate at a recent press conference. “We’re fortunate we’ve got old and young players who fit all those categories.”
Statistics back up his confidence. According to Financial Times analysis, the current 26-man England squad has featured more players in leading club competitions than any other since Euro 2004. This suggests a battle-hardened group, well-prepared for the rigours of an intense international tournament.
Over the past season, the current crop of England players has each averaged 2,832 minutes of game time in elite club competitions such as Europe’s “Big Five” leagues in England, Germany, Spain, France and Italy and the Champions League, Europe’s leading club contest.
This wealth of experience is second only to the 2,849 minutes racked up by the so-called “golden generation” of players in the season before Euro 2004 which included players such as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney.
This playing time has also been gained at a relatively early age by the standards of professional football. Seven England squad-members are under 23, which equals the record for the highest number of young players picked for a national team in a major international tournament.
Between them; Reece James, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Jadon Sancho have racked up 19,547 minutes of elite club football this season, narrowly behind the 19,662 minutes amassed by the seven under-23s in the England squad for the 2002 World Cup.
This development has been through design. Other nations such as France, Spain and Germany have created national youth systems to develop technically-gifted footballers who have graduated into recent European and World champions.
The Football Association, the national governing body for the sport, instituted the “England DNA” programme in 2013, training its youth teams to play the same style of football expected of the senior squad.
This initiative was in response to England’s repeated failures at major tournaments. The fruits were first seen at the 2018 World Cup, where England reached the semi-finals despite fielding one of the least experienced England squads in two decades.
The changes have also proved beneficial to English club sides which have previously been reluctant to field younger prospects, fearing that they lack the maturity to perform in the biggest games. Yet, minutes played in matches is considered the best way of developing players.
This season, youngsters such as Manchester City’s Foden, 21, and Chelsea’s Mount, 22, broke into the teams that contested the Champions League final last month. They have also gained from the Euros being delayed for a year because of the pandemic, becoming likely starters for England against Croatia.
“We have a lot of young players, but they can play at the highest levels,” said Foden. “We have a lot of players who have played in important games, so we know what that feels like if we get to the latter stages.”
Southgate has also emphasised the need for “adaptability”, adopting fluid formations and tactical plans that require players to be adept in multiple different positions.
He has also criticised a previously “myopic” approach within the English game, where footballers rarely move to play in other countries and learn from other sporting cultures.
Southgate’s England squad features players with more experience outside of English leagues than any other, including players like Sancho and Bellingham from Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, and Kieran Trippier, who won Spain’s La Liga championship with Atletico Madrid this season.
Regardless of these best-laid plans, international tournaments are unpredictable. England have a poor history in the Euros, having never previously reached the final and were ignominiously knocked out by lowly Iceland in 2016.
Key players such as defender Harry Maguire and midfielder Jordan Henderson are recovering from recent injuries that may limit their participation. Other players have faced long, gruelling seasons that could make tiredness a factor — a longstanding complaint for England managers.
While the competition is being played in 11 cities across Europe, the semi-finals and final are being staged at Wembley.
England could also ensure that they play most of their matches at home, which has proved to be a major advantage in football.
That requires winning their group in the first phase of the competition, an initial success that comes with the dubious prize of possibly facing one of France, Germany or Portugal in the next knockout round, each among the best national teams in the world.
A tough draw also means that England will probably need to beat more top-ranked teams to reach the final.
And in a low-scoring sport, luck also has an unquantifiable effect. A dubious refereeing decision, an unlucky bounce of the ball or, as has been all too common in the past for England, a poorly-struck penalty in a shootout, could be the ultimate factor that results in elimination and more disappointment.
However, England have spent years developing a new generation of footballers good enough to be considered among the favourites. “Other countries have very good players,” said Southgate. “We wouldn’t swap ours . . . and we’re going to need all of them.”