In May of last year, Gareth Southgate armed himself with a spreadsheet and delivered a stark warning that England’s talent pool may be running dry.
“We’ve got to arrest the slide,” he said, pointing to a study by the Football Association which had found that only 29.8% of Premier League starting spots had been filled by English players during the 2018-19 season.
Whether or not you believe that the Premier League and its clubs should prioritise developing talent for the national team set-up, the vast majority of England’s players still play in the top flight. A steady decline in their numbers could only make the impossible job more difficult – if not for Southgate, then for his successor.
“The big concern for me is this graph continues to fall away and that we end up in 10 years’ time with an England manager who has got 15% of the league to choose from,” the England manager added. “Why would that not happen? It is a big danger for us.”
Yet only 18 months later, the graph Southgate was worried about is gradually trending in the opposite direction. That proportion of Premier League starts for England-eligible players rose to 35.3% during last season, and has since risen again to 36.6% at the start of the new campaign.
The proportion of English players in the top flight also jumped up last season, potentially offering Southgate another 20 players to consider either now or in the future. That number can be expected to rise again this season as managers delve deeper into their squads and academy systems during this most congested football schedule.
The current crop of English top-flight players are also relatively youthful – 25 years old on average, a year younger than the league-wide figure.
These may seem like small gains but they are significant in international management, where coaches succeed and fail by the options at their disposal. England’s talent pool is not shrinking but growing, a fact reflected in Southgate’s decision to call up as many as 30 players for the October internationals.
Other than its size, the striking thing about the current squad is how only 13 of the 30 call-ups have won caps in double figures. Jadon Sancho is 20 years old and the ninth-most senior at international level. On the one hand, it smacks of inexperience. On the other, it speaks to a larger group of young or previously uncapped talent that Southgate is able to turn towards.
For this camp’s first-time call-ups like Harvey Barnes, who has waited patiently for his opportunity to impress, the greater competition for places was clear not from the squad list but from the moment he began training with the seniors at St George’s Park.
“You can just see from the first session the quality that there is in this squad,” the Leicester City winger said earlier this week. “There's also a lot of quality players that haven't been called up that are still to come.” Barnes is right. The best indication of a national team’s strength in depth is often not who’s named in the squad but who is left out of it.
Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were not considered for selection after their disciplinary indiscretions during September’s camp. James Maddison and Ross Barkley had only recently recovered from injury and were not risked.
Callum Wilson will sit this camp out. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is still waiting for his first senior cap. John Stones, Fikayo Tomori, Dele Alli and Callum Hudson-Odoi all stand a chance of a recall if they can find form and win their places back between now and May.
Those are just the ones who have previously been called up by Southgate. Others like Michail Antonio at West Ham, Tariq Lamptey and Ben White at Brighton, Ollie Watkins at Aston Villa and Dwight McNeil at Burnley are all impressing at their clubs.
Much has been made of the number of English players who have followed Sancho’s example and moved abroad, and both Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala are collecting minutes in the Bundesliga this season despite their tender age.
When Southgate eventually names his final 23-man squad for Euro 2020, it’s likely that he will have to leave out several players who are well-deserving of a place. All 30 at England’s current camp will fancy their chances of playing at a major tournament. A few hearts will have to be broken.
“For sure it'll make more difficult conversations,” Southgate said last week, discussing his decision to name a particularly large squad. “When you're picking the next smallest squad, by the very nature, you are going to have to leave four or five out.”
There are still deficiencies, though. The lack of options at left-back, and of left-footed players full stop, is something Southgate drew attention to during September’s camp. Other than first-choice Ben Chilwell and new, untested call-up Bukayo Saka, the best alternatives are experienced players who have fallen out of favour at international level like Ryan Bertrand, Aaron Cresswell and Luke Shaw.
In midfield, it remains to be seen which pairing of Declan Rice, Harry Winks, Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips will emerge as first-choice. Bellingham, a 17-year-old currently three appearances into a top-flight career, stands an outside chance of playing his way into contention if he becomes a regular at Dortmund this season. England are not especially blessed with traditional wide players, either.
On balance, it is fair to say this is not a golden generation. Each player in Southgate’s first-choice starting line-up is not among the best in the world in their position. Yet it is a young, exciting and reassuringly deep England talent pool, with the potential to develop into something greater still.
The worry not long ago was that emerging English talent was being denied opportunities but, if anything, Southgate will enter next summer’s tournament spoilt for choice.
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