BRING ON DUTCH
Southgate is excited, but young lions need more top-flight action
FOR a tournament that was so widely dismissed when UEFA first mooted the idea, the Nations League is doing a remarkable job of capturing the imagination in England.
After the thriller of Seville came a fine performance against Croatia and now, after yesterday’s draw here in Dublin, Gareth Southgate and his side look forward to a first competitive encounter with Holland since Euro 96.
A member of the England side who so impressed under the guidance of Terry Venables at Wembley 22 years ago, Southgate yesterday referred to that contest as one of his finest moments on a pitch.
‘It was brilliant — one of my best days in football, no question,’ said England’s manager. ‘Very often when you think about those moments all the colours remain vivid in your mind. The orange that hat their fans added to the stadium and the e warm evening, the atmosphere and the quality of the game.
‘They had some outstanding players and we enjoyed one of our best performances. - It was a brilliant night to be involved in, one thatat has been talked about ooverer the past couple of decades. I am sure the quality of the match in the summer will be very high as well.’
This game has the added spice of having Ronald Koeman — in the eyes of England fans one of the villains of the World Cup qualifier in Rotterdam in 1993 — as manager of the opposition.
But as much as one could detect a sense of excitement in both coaches here in Dublin, Southgate also felt it necessary to highlight the challenges he will face trying to win the semi-final on June 6 before meeting Portugal or Switzerland in a bid to win the Nations League trophy in Porto three days later.
With the Champions League final the previous weekend, Southgate conceded that he might have only ‘two proper training days’ with his full squad before England meet the Dutch. The decreasing number of opportunities for his players in the Premier League is causing him further concern.
At a time when the Premier League seem determined to defy the FA’s wishes for the quota of English players to be increased from eight to 12 in every squad of 25 in post- Brexit Britain, the statistics certainly suggest that some kind of compromise needs to be reached. In the top flight last las weekend, the number n of Englandl starters dipped below 25 per cent for the first time — those 54 players amounting a to 24.5 per p cent and taking the th average for the season sea down to 29.1 per ccent. ‘ It is incredible,’ said SSouthgate.tht ‘It was a 33 per cent average last season and now it’s down to 29. Nobody can tell me that if the players are good enough, they will come through. That is not true. There are plenty of players who are good enough.’
Asked if the situation frustrated him, he replied: ‘For parents and boys entering academies, the very nature of it is that you expect opportunity at the end.
‘I go back to previous tournaments when we have reviewed everything that has gone on in English football. Many of those things are in the right place now, but this is the missing piece that everybody is keen to resolve.
‘In terms of the quotas, we are in ongoing discussions on those. What’s clear is that we can’t allow the trend to continue as it is because at what point do we stop? Everybody saw the impact and the success of the national team in the summer.
‘While we still want a competitive Premier League that brings a lot of focus into our country as well, we need to find this missing piece of development for English football.’
For now, Southgate has to continue to operate in the current circumstances and plan for the Nations League climax next June. ‘The Nations League has been a great success,’ he said. ‘ The quality of the matches for our development has been exceptional and we’re looking forward to the semi-finals with four very good teams.
‘We play Holland, a team who are at a similar stage to us, developing a lot of exciting young players. I can see the impact Ronald has had on them from when we played in March, so it’s a very exciting game to look forward to. I think it will be a really good week of football.
‘We now know the next 12 months and that’s good for us in terms of planning.
‘It’s also a strange six months in that we’ve got that time to plan for a semi-final and yet might not get some of the players until two days before it.
‘That’s always the balance with international football but it’s good to know exactly who we are playing and it should be a really super game and a great atmosphere.’