Euro 2020 qualifiers: No Manchester United players, no problem for England and Gareth Southgate
Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi could play important role in Montenegro game on Monday
An England squad with a unusual gap in its make-up set off for Montenegro on Sunday.
Scroll through the squad and you will find no player from Manchester United. It has been a while since the so-called Three Lions contested a full competitive international week without any input from the club that has, more often than not, been its principal reference point.
Not that it seemed to matter as England, World Cup semi-finalists last year, began their qualifying for next year’s European Championship with a 5-0 victory over the Czech Republic on Friday. They did not obviously miss Marcus Rashford, the United striker ruled out with injury, or Luke Shaw, the injured left-back.
Nor Jesse Lingard, a favourite of manager Gareth Southgate, although their relationship is now under some strain. Lingard had announced he would not be available for his country in order to protect a hamstring problem and yet he started for United last weekend against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Southgate reminded Lingard that missing international dates runs the risk of dropping down the England hierarchy. The warning was delivered from a position of strength. In the attacking positions, England seem blessed with an abundance of young, eager footballers.
Take Jadon Sancho, earmarked, on Monday night against Montenegro, to continue in a role, on the right of a front three, that might otherwise have belonged to Rashford or even Lingard.
Monday is Sancho's 19th birthday, and he has already achieved things beyond all of his elders in the England squad. He was part of the squad that won the Under 17 World Cup a year and a half ago, this a few months after he had taken the bold decision to leave Manchester City and sign for Borussia Dortmund.
Sancho is the leading provider of assists in the 2018/19 Bundesliga and may end the season as a German league champion, should Dortmund prevail against Bayern Munich in a title-race in which the two contenders are neck-and-neck.
Sancho’s first competitive start for England was 24 minutes old when he set up England’s opening goal against the Czechs with a brisk, arrowed cross.
By the end of the night, he was no longer the youngest man on the pitch, Callum Hudson-Odoi having come off the bench for his senior debut. He, too, made an impact, his fierce shot parried to set up the unfortunate ricochet in which Thomas Kalas, with an own goal, took the scoreline to 5-0.
Hudson-Odoi turns 19 in November, is another U17 world champion and his selection endorsed several aspects of Southgate’s increasingly bold manifesto. This is a manager who will trust up-and-coming young footballers.
Friday also featured a debut for Declan Rice, who turned 20 in January and was persuaded by the manager he could anticipate a long England career if he opted for England, where he was born, ahead of Ireland, for whom he also qualifies and had previously played in friendlies.
Southgate made it clear to Rice he would not, if he maintained his form, be obliged to wait around for his caps.
Nor would his suitability be judged on the fact he is not at a so-called ‘Top-Six’ Premier League club. Rice plays for West Ham United and for the later stages of the rousing win against the Czechs took up a midfield role shielding a defence that included two men from Everton (goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and centre-half Michael Keane), and two from Leicester City (Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell).
No Manchester United players, no problem. Chris Smalling, the United centre-back Southgate discarded because he doubts his capacity to play the ball out of defence with speed and precision, as well as defenders Phil Jones and Ashley Young, who both went to the World Cup, will have noted that.
The message is clear: Southgate will not privilege the restricted number of England-qualified players who every season gain top-level experience in European club competitions via the most successful Premier League clubs.
He will, rather, let players gain that sort of experience on his watch. He will regard what they show in the age-group England teams as just as valuable. Hudson-Odoi, a winger, has never started a Premier League match for Chelsea, the club he has been attached to since he was seven; but he has played for England from U16 to U19 level, and shown he has the sort of confidence in duels and ingenuity on the ball that Southgate wants to promote, to make England more dynamic that they often appeared at the World Cup.
Sancho has that pizzazz and recognises it in others.
“Callum’s very good at one-v-ones and that’s what we need,” Sancho said. “The coach believes in him. It just shows that if you give youngsters a chance, they'll show they have something to prove.”
Updated: March 25, 2019 11:22 AM