Is Southgate beginning a bold new era?

Often we hold young players back – Southgate
Uefa Nations League: Croatia v England
Venue: Stadion HNK Rijeka Date: Friday 12 October Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio 5 live; text commentary on the BBC Sport website

Amid the euphoria of England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in the summer, one flaw remained evident throughout.

Gareth Southgate’s side were technically inferior to the world’s elite teams, a truth exposed for all to see when Croatia eliminated them with a 2-1 win in the semi-finals in Moscow.

England’s manager was fully aware of the deficiencies and, by selecting an even more youthful squad than usual for the behind-closed-doors Uefa Nations League game against the same opponents in Rijeka on Friday, it appears he is seeking solutions to his side’s major problems.

With the manager emboldened by a new contract which runs until after the 2022 World Cup, is this a significant moment in England’s evolution under Southgate?

Why has Southgate made such a bold statement?

Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount has represented England at every youth level from under-16s and above

Southgate’s first post-World Cup squad for the Nations League meeting with Spain at Wembley and the friendly with Switzerland at Leicester brought disappointment in some quarters as it was a safe selection showing loyalty to those who served England so well in Russia, injecting little fresh young blood.

There has been no such show of conservatism this time around, though, as Southgate’s squad contained six uncapped players, including 19-year-old Mason Mount – on loan at Derby County from Chelsea – and Borussia Dortmund’s 18-year-old former Manchester City attacker Jadon Sancho.

The selections of Mount and Sancho stand out, evidence that Southgate now believes he must cast a wider net, a reflection on the paucity of English talent in the Premier League that has taken him into the Championship and the Bundesliga.

Mount, flourishing with regular football under Frank Lampard at Pride Park, edged out Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose decision to stay at Chelsea after figuring at the World Cup following a fine loan spell at Crystal Palace looks increasingly flawed.

Southgate showed self-confidence and assuredness when making these selections.

And he currently makes decisions from a position of huge strength after signing a new contract that will take him through to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Southgate has also bought himself precious time for experimentation – a word he rails against but there is surely an element of truth in it – after building a formidable fund of personal popularity in Russia, not simply because England reached the last four but also because of his own demeanour.

It is much easier for Southgate to risk the odd poor result after reaching England’s first World Cup semi-final for 28 years than if they had flopped in Russia – judgements and verdicts may not have been so kind and patience not in such generous supply then.

Southgate’s selection also came after two very average performances in defeat by Spain at Wembley and in the narrow win against the Swiss – old failings such as lack of midfield creation were still in evidence and he has decided to act.

England call-up is the biggest thing that could happen – Sancho

Southgate attacks England’s Achilles heel

As England arrived in Rijeka accompanied by a glorious Croatian sunset, this new-age squad looks increasingly like a new dawn, an attempt by Southgate to solve his biggest problem.

England cannot escape the brutal truth that they were badly exposed in the key midfield area when losing twice to Belgium and in the semi-final against Friday’s opponents in Russia.

Southgate’s England were game but uninspired, lacking in creativity in those games.

Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, who had an excellent World Cup, and Tottenham’s Eric Dier are honest journeymen at the highest international level but not creators among the elite.

It is, with this in mind, that Southgate has grasped at the opportunity given to him by Ross Barkley’s new, although admittedly brief, lease of life at Chelsea.

Barkley last played for England against Australia in May 2016 and figured in only four games last season after struggling with injury and failing to establish himself under Antonio Conte at Chelsea.

He was ignored by Roy Hodgson despite being in his Euro 2016 squad, was not considered by Sam Allardyce and Southgate has steered clear until now.

Ross Barkley has 22 caps for England but is in the squad for the first time since May 2016

Barkley’s biggest faults have been decision-making and a habit of conceding possession in dangerous areas. For all the plaudits he received after scoring in Chelsea’s 3-0 win at Southampton, his carelessness after coming on as substitute helped Liverpool snatch a draw at Stamford Bridge.

He is now 24 and entering the crucial phase of his career. Barkley is unquestionably capable of the creation England need – now he must take advantage of Southgate’s so far fruitless search for that X-factor.

Leicester City’s James Maddison, uncapped and only 21, falls into the same category after an impressive start to the season following his £20m move from Norwich City, while Southgate has also taken advantage of Harry Winks’ return to fitness at Spurs as another option after impressing on his debut in a World Cup qualifier in Lithuania two years ago.

With Mount also in the mix, the manager has real alternatives to the old order.

These are a very important few days for England’s potential midfield creators of the future.

Croatia can measure England’s status?

It was only on 11 July that England’s heartbroken players trudged away from Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium after their bid to reach a first World Cup final in 52 years ended in disappointment.

The time lapse may be only three months and the atmosphere in Rijeka’s deserted stadium in a game played behind closed doors a world away from Moscow, but this is a match of meaning and measure for England.

Have Southgate and his players learned the lessons of that defeat, when England’s shortcomings allowed Croatia’s midfield masters Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to starve them of possession while dictating the rhythm and tempo with stakes so high?

Can England suggest, as they will have to against Spain in Seville on Monday, that they really did earn a place back at world football’s top table in Russia or that they still remain a ‘B-List’ country unable to beat the elite?

Was Russia actually as good as it is going to get while a new rebuilding process begins?

Not many will be inside this stadium to witness the next phase in England’s progress – but it remains a game of real importance.

World Cup 2018: Croatia 2-1 England (aet) highlights

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