English football is riding on the crest of a wave, the euphoric win over Croatia to reach the UEFA Nations League finals the latest chapter of a spellbinding story that shows no sign of ending.
The English public have fallen back in love with their national team — and so they should. First came a World Cup semi-final and now the prospect of a first competitive trophy since 1966.
Yet England manager Gareth Southgate is not satisfied and in the aftermath of Sunday’s thrilling victory at Wembley, he steadfastly refused to rest on his laurels.
Gareth Southgate is ready to promote more young guns to his England squad going forward
Dismantling a squad that has achieved so much this year may perplex some, but that is exactly what Southgate is preparing to do.
‘Whenever I see teams that win the league, the only way they can start that challenge again is to add a couple of new players,’ he said.
‘We are tracking all the youngsters. One of the most important things we can do is be right on the button with every player, who is playing, how they are progressing and where they might fit in.’
Arsenal youngster Reiss Nelson, left, is being lined up for senior honours after impressing abroad while Manchester City’s Phil Foden, right, is being tipped to have a bright future with both club and country
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There are those, like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and John Stones, who need not worry as they are fixtures in the squad – but others must heed Southgate’s remarks.
Indeed, Sportsmail understands the manager spoke individually to certain players last week to stress the importance of playing regularly at club level to ensure they remain a part of his plans.
The message was clear: if you are not playing, you will not be in the squad. With the January transfer window looming, the timing of Southgate’s words could not be more relevant.
Particularly if you are Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Fabian Delph, who could find game time sparse in the coming weeks and months.
That is because there is a growing collective of young English talent who are pushing for a chance at senior international level.
The emergence of Jadon Sancho is merely the tip of the iceberg. Behind him are Reiss Nelson, Ryan Sessegnon, Mason Mount, Morgan Gibbs-White, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Phil Foden, who are all being lined up for senior honours.
Fulham youngster Ryan Sessegnon (left) is knocking on the door of an England senior call-up, while Mason Mount (right) has impressed on loan at Derby in the Championship so far this term
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Southgate’s squad has taken on a more youthful complexion since the World Cup.
Jamie Vardy, Gary Cahill and Ashley Young have stepped down from international duty.
Similarly, it looks hard for Danny Rose to get back into the squad as Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw are now recognised as England’s leading left backs.
All that means more late-night sessions of popular video game Fortnite and chat about what players are listening to on Spotify. You get the feeling, though, Southgate would not want it any other way.
‘Any time you go in the dressing room or walk around the hotel, it’s like a youth club,’ said the 48-year-old.
‘You can hear them laughing and joking. They are relaxed and enjoying being together and playing.
‘When you see such young players playing with that expression and freedom, that’s what we want to create.’
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, left, has enjoyed a fine start to the season at Crystal Palace in the top flight while Morgan Gibbs-White, right, will be looking to make a name for himself in the coming months
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But within that environment Southgate is nurturing a tenacious group who are developing the knack of getting over the line.
Sunday’s win over Croatia, the team who knocked them out of the World Cup, is the latest hurdle they have overcome.
‘The win showed we have the mental capacity to progress, but also tactically that we learned from the defeat in the World Cup,’ he said.
‘But also the depth of the team, we had players who could come in and have an attacking effect on the game.
‘In the summer, towards the end of the tournament, the first team had become the first team a bit and the other guys were great back-up but weren’t coming in and being able to change the game so much.
‘When you’ve got Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard and Sancho and Ruben on the bench, then that starts to look different.’
Meanwhile, Southgate is facing potential disruption for next summer’s finals in Portugal if a Premier League club reach the Champions League final as that game takes place on June 1 — four days before England’s semi-final in the UEFA Nations League.