The Football Association has enjoyed a good summer. The various youth tournaments have brought relative success at all age groups and, after the chastening humiliation of 2016, provided a welcome tonic for the nation’s ailing enthusiasm.
On Sunday night, Keith Downing’s u19s furthered the good mood, beating Germany 4-1 in Georgia and qualifying for next week’s semi-final. It may not have been a vintage performance, England were actually flattered by the scoreline, but it was more satisfying progress; all the teams entered into tournaments by The FA this summer have reached a semi-final or better.
This u19 side is arguably the country’s most talented. Ryan Sessegnon is already a much coveted wunderkind, while Mason Mount is an ethereal playmaker who, with some senior toughening, could really become something special. Deeper in the formation, Trevoh Chalobah looks authoritative and cultured at centre-half, while Dujon Sterling promises to evolve into an impressive full-back at Chelsea.
If success has been one theme of the summer, variety has been another. Whereas English footballers once had distinctive traits and were reliant on particular (and narrow) ability sets, the past few weeks have shown their technical broadening. All of the FA’s first-elevens share certain characteristics and, by design, all employ similar formations and game preparation techniques, but they’re comprised of very different parts.
The typical English player now seems smarter than his predecessor, far more comfortable in possession and more at ease shifting between the tactical shapes used within the modern game. But beneath those surface similarities lies great diversity: footballers of different shapes and sizes, certainly, but also with a wide variety of strengths.
In June, Aidy Boothroyd took an under-talented side to Poland for the u21 Championship. They too reached a semi-final and the reason why they were able to survive in that tournament – and take a talented German team to penalties – was because of the squad’s flexibility. Of course, that range was tested by injuries to Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Redmond and, to a lesser extent, Tammy Abraham, but Boothroyd was able to adjust his side’s emphasis by rotating in players of contrasting abilities. Will Hughes, for instance, whose smooth, light spirited distribution and skill were used to replace Chalobah’s protecting iron. Or Demarai Gray, who brought variety to all sorts of different positions once he broke into the side.
Elsewhere, during the u20s’ World Cup campaign, manager Paul Simpson – partly through choice, partly by design – shuffled his own pack on the way to the final. Adam Armstrong, Dominic Solanke and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all played a number of forward roles in a range of different combinations, Ademola Lookman was used both from the left and the right, and Sheyi Ojo rotated between starter and impact sub.
Ultimately, England climbed the podium in South Korea because of their level of performance, but that was a level they were only able to achieve – and maintain – because of the different tools they took to Asia.
It would clearly be disingenuous to pretend that the British Isles have, until this point, only been producing one type of player. Comedy stereotypes and tournament failures aside, each one of the last decades has produced a reasonable spread of talent; we have not just been a culture of studs, elbows and physicality.
The difference now, though, is that such eclecticism is more obvious. Ironically, while the mid-teenage tournaments are often deemed irrelevant, it’s there – for England at least – where that change is most apparent. Steve Cooper’s u17s may have only been a botched marking assignment and some flimsy goalkeeping away from winning their European Championship in May, but the encouragement from Croatia lay in the detail – in the performances of Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden, for instance, who are about as different as it’s possible for two footballers to be. Both are embedded within Manchester City’s academy and possess the veneer of soft skill which is a modern prerequisite, but each has retained his distinctive personality. Sancho is fast, direct and explosive, while Foden is more measured, pushing passes around the field and jolting the temperament of games.
That’s the notable dynamic. The great fear over Dan Ashworth’s England DNA doctrine was that it was an attempt to homogenise English players or, worse, simply copy the blueprints established in other, more successful parts of Europe. Neither fear has been realised – and, in fact, one of the great bugbears of the past also appears to be on the retreat. Domestic coaches were often accused of over-tutoring players and over-instructing them to the point of inhibition. But to look at English football now, at least beneath its top layer, is to see a wide variety of playing styles and different levels of expression all functioning within the boundaries of a team.
It’s something that Paul Simpson, during an interview with The Guardian’s Ed Aarons, remarked upon in the aftermath of his team’s World Cup win:
“The FA has put in place a bit of a system for them to hold on to and play to. It’s a system that does not prohibit the players or stop them from showing what they’re about.”
England have a pre-ordained shape and their tactics are certainly centralised. They also conform to contemporary imperatives such as valuing possession and trying, where possible, to play the ball carefully out of defence. But to portray that as a rigid house style would be incorrect; these teams are successful but not robotic, disciplined without being mechanical. The normal caveats still apply and nothing counts for anything until progress flows into the senior squad, but a nice balance has been found which encompasses all the healthiest parts of youth development.
An English player is now skilled without being reckless. Expressive without being naive. Most importantly of all, he isn’t limited to one style or another – he doesn’t have to be quick or strong, creative or effective. Now, he can be anything.