England vs USA: On a night of nostalgia, it's Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold and the rising stars who shine

It was an evening billed as a celebration of a fondly-remembered past, but it ended up serving a glimpse of what could be a bright future for England

Mark Critchley
Wembley Stadium
Thursday 15 November 2018 23:10 GMT
Gareth Southgate speaks press after 3-0 win over USA at Wembley

Jadon Sancho, the first England international born in the new millennium, collected a loose ball inside the penalty area, patiently awaited Trent Alexander-Arnold’s overlap, then laid a simple pass into the full-back to set up the second goal of the evening.

The two youngest players in the squad to play this friendly against the United States had combined to establish a deserved 2-0 lead. Wayne Rooney, this squad’s most senior member, applauded from his place on the Wembley touchline.

It was Rooney’s night, still. His swansong, a one-off re-emergence from international retirement in a largely meaningless friendly, will be what this mostly forgettable evening at Wembley will be remembered for.

Yet the reason that Rooney’s return sat uneasily with some was that the Gareth Southgate era has otherwise been nothing but relentlessly forward-facing, unsentimental about established yet fading talents and eager to develop fresher, more exciting faces.

In that sense, Alexander-Arnold's man-of-the-match performance and Sancho's impressive shift out wide were significant - a triumph of the new, not the same old repeats.

The 18-year-old Sancho caught the eye particularly, quietly demonstrating why he has earned a senior call-up despite his relative inexperience at the elite level.

His assist for Alexander-Arnold was his ninth of the campaign so far, while his manipulation of the ball and devilish movement upended DeAndre Yedlin and West McKinnie on several occasions.

Sancho described himself as a "street footballer" in the build-up to this friendly, the same phrase used to describe Rooney as he was rising through the ranks.

On Rooney's England retirement last year and his departure from these shores in the summer, eulogies for the last "street footballer" were widely printed, though it turns out those reports were greatly exaggerrated.

It appears that Sancho shares those same qualities - a certain guile and cunning, an ability to work in tight spaces - and his display was a reminder why Southgate has placed such faith to tyros coming through the ranks, rather than remaining deferent to the older guard.

Earlier this week, the Under-21s manager Aidy Boothroyd revealed that the England set-up is investing time and resources into understanding ‘Generation Z’, or in other words, players born in the mid-to-late 1990s.

The future is bright for Gareth Southgate’s England (Getty Images)

This decision was taken by the England set-up's ‘Peoples and Team’ department after a Southgate sermon on his penalty miss against Germany 22 years ago failed to resonate in a room full of teenagers.

A lecture on ‘Generation Z’ was held at St George’s Park on Monday to help senior England staff understand, in Boothroyd’s slightly bemused words, “what they actually are”, beyond the selfie-taking and Instagram stories.

Is it all codswallop conjured up by over-funded academics? Well, probably, yes. Yet this kind of curiosity and open-mindedness is still a refreshing change from the England of Rooney's vintage and typical of what we have seen from Southgate so far.

It felt fitting, then, that on a night when most of the attention was on a millennial being put out to pasture, the two members of his squad who can unambiguously count themselves as ‘Zoomers’ should combine to score.

On an evening billed as a celebration of a fondly-remembered past, it was a glimpse of what could be a brighter future.

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