Gareth Southgate knows English football well enough to recognise that four Premier League clubs in the finals of both the Champions and Europa League is not in itself a cause for celebration for the England team, until you drill down into the numbers.
At Wembley this week, the England manager had something else on his mind: the decline of the native English footballer in the Premier League, now down to 30 per cent in terms of starters, and 19.9 per cent among the big six. It is an awkward topic given the delicate relationship between the Football Association and the top 20 clubs in the country but Southgate is right to raise it. If he, as England manager, is not prepared to do so, then who will?
The FA need English players; the clubs have, as Southgate acknowledge, diverse priorities of their own. The success of the senior team at the Nations League next month, and the Under-21s at their own European championships in Italy the following week, will be dependent on the talent that Premier League clubs produce and in that respect Southgate is on their side. On Thursday night he was going from Wembley to a gathering of academy directors and coaches.
“I understand completely that each of the Premier League clubs is a business in its own right,” he says, “with its own aims and objectives that won’t necessarily align with what the national association want.
“But our job as a governing body must be to protect the interests of both. To protect the interests of the club game but to give the national team and its importance for our people the right level of support and opportunity to succeed. And I think that is possible.
“I think you can have a successful league and a successful pathway for the national team. That needs grown-up conversations and I think there are lots of good people in football who are more than capable of having that.”
As things stand, the four finalists in action in Baku and Madrid are supplying ten of the 27-man squad named by Southgate on Thursday for the Nations League: six from Tottenham Hotspur, three from Liverpool, one from Chelsea and none from Arsenal. Clearly injuries have played their part but it is not hard to see why Southgate was just as enthusiastic about the Championship play-offs, and the achievements this season in that division of Chris Wilder, Frank Lampard and Dean Smith.
He believes that one day there will be a top six club that appoints an English manager. “Absolutely I see that because there are some really exciting coaches coming through,” he says. “Our academies and English coaches were knocked for a long time but these guys will start to put performances on like I saw from Derby at Leeds and that will start to change the perspective.” Who knows? It may even be him at a top six club.
While he sounded the warning about the future of the English footballer it was hard to ignore the fact that this is a strong group he has selected, with many good contenders left out to make do with a place in the Under-21s. Southgate said that the seniors and the Under-21s will be combining training for some of their respective tournament build-up and with ten players away on club duty until the final days he will have to lean on the junior side considerably.
If they are indeed to play one another in a full-sided game, it might well be a closer contest than it would have been in previous years. The Chelsea pair Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi are both out with injury and one could argue that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s lack of match time has denied him a place. Otherwise these are currently two strong squads with James Maddison, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Phil Foden among those having to be satisfied for now with a place in Aidy Boothroyd’s Under-21s.
Southgate has picked his senior squad to achieve a balance of personalities, making the point that it has not been a case of Fabian Delph over Maddison – one of the selections that raised eyebrows – but the overall profile of the squad. “We can’t just pick seven Sanchos, Sterlings and Rashfords,” he says. “We’ve got to have different personality types. We’ve got to have warriors in there who win us games as much as with talent. You always have to strive for that balance.”
Southgate said that Boothroyd would need as strong a team as possible with only the three group winners plus the best runner-up progressing from the Under-21s’ championship first round. “We’ve taken so many players from the Under-21s early [into the seniors] that we wanted the likes of Foden, Maddison, [Mason] Mount, Wan-Bissaka, [Ryan] Sessegnon - you could go on - to have a tournament together. It will be good for them to get that tournament experience again. We have a really exciting group at that age, although it’s a really tough competition.”
As for Sterling, he may yet be the captain for the Nations League semi-final against Holland on 6 June as one of the squad’s leadership group. If so, that will be his 50th cap with his 25th birthday not until December this year. “You can see his maturity now with what had happened to him on and off the pitch,” Southgate says. “I think he is relishing that. He has risen to that challenge and embraced it and I wouldn’t have any hesitation in doing that if that was the right thing.”
“When I am picking a squad, I’ve got to leave players out to put them in. People talked about [Jack] Grealish last time, but is that leaving out Hudson-Odoi or [Jadon] Sancho to put Grealish in? I’m reminded of the Spanish manager a couple of years ago who said, ‘Every time I pick a squad I commit a crime because of the players I leave out’.”
Not quite the image of the England manager who is scraping the barrel, although his original point stands. If England are to continue to make progress following three great years for the country at senior and junior levels then change will have to come in the Premier League.