As Jadon Sancho broke behind the Czech Republic rear-guard from Harry Kane’s through ball in the 24th minute, it was only fitting that the one player worthy of finishing that beautiful move off, the one player revelling in the role of mascot for England’s bright and buzzing potential, had a groovy low-top fade to match his man-of-the-match award.
Raheem Sterling is his own man, aware of who he is and what he can do – a potential symbol of what this team could be all about.
In their 5-0 win over their Czech opposition at a bouncy and attentive Wembley Stadium, everything Sterling touched turned to English delight. His hat-trick and overall performance were met with glowing words from Gareth Southgate saying, “Raheem was brilliant, electric all night. He’s looked that all week in training, involved in four of the goals, and I’m really pleased for him. It’s a special night for him.”
His teammates rode the wave of their collective progress so far, and even though they had to manufacture a workman-like performance before the floodgates finally opened, this will do them no harm.
And although this may not have been a proper examination of their credentials, it showed us that there may be more to this team than what meets the eye. The Czech Republic should be the most difficult opponents England face – they are in a group that includes Bulgaria, Kosovo and Montenegro – so to see them win like this must be scary for those that feel that there is more here.
That, for Southgate, should be the most important conclusion. Whisper it to your mom or shout it out in Biology class on Monday morning – this is a team made to play in a progressive, evolved way.
The starting line-up alone had players plying their trade at teams that are either thriving under managers who see football as a high-pressing, lung-busting industry, or those that are striving to be more than what they currently are.
Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri and Mauricio Pochettino, Marco Silva, Brendan Rodgers – all aiming to lead the way for the progressive men of our era, and all seen in the players that they manage and coach week in, week out, bringing Southgate’s ideas to life.
Believe the hype, England. There seems to be something here that’s tangible and hard to disprove when you look at recent results at home to Croatia and away to Spain or clinching fourth place at the World Cup last summer.
And who would’ve thought that Southgate was the man made for this challenge? From those modest, humble beginnings at Middlesbrough to where we are now, it’s been a kick to the teeth for those that may have doubted his appointment in 2016.
What we must be careful of, however, is making more of what’s there, to take this hype and belief and conclude that this is a team that will go on to conquer all that lie in wait. To over-hype and stretch that belief a little too far would taint the good work that Southgate has done over the last year.
Remember the “golden generation” of Terry and Ferdinand, and Lampard and Scholes, and Gerrard and Cole? The same players who struggled under the weight of that gold standard, sprinkles of which seem to haunt them till this very day?
It’s hard to believe that this team will suffer the same sort of death by stardust and over-confidence – there is a vibrant cohesion here that didn’t seem to click with those that played before them. Sancho and Sterling provided the x-factor to compliment Kane’s all-round centre forward play. Ben Chilwell and Kyle Walker played supporting roles from their defensive base, and Jordan Henderson was energetic and enthusiastic in midfield.
With the three-at-the-back blueprint folded away neatly somewhere in Southgate’s office desk at St. George’s Park, the team has now settled in a fluid 4-3-3 formation that offers the wide men the chance to either roam across the front-line or hold their width, and the central midfielders to break into the box and beyond the centre forward.
It all points to an era of flexibility and depth in available options and naturally, the questions will move on from, “How can we?” to, “When can we?” Southgate knows that all this work must culminate into something tangible and real, that this journey must take them to a place long believed to be just a distant memory. Since the hay days of 1966, the
And with Euro 2020 on the horizon, which Southgate would expect to qualify for, it’s hard to think that the next step isn’t around the corner.
If this performance is anything to go by, whilst missing the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and John Stones, then England could be living at a time when the next level is a necessary and realistic destination. Southgate needs to find a way to manage the hype.