THIS is a funny time of year to be an international football manager.
It’s been three months since your last meaningful day’s work and still more than a month to go until the next one.
In fact, Gareth Southgate will earn £1million between fixtures.
And yet Wednesday was still a very good day at the office for the England boss – thanks to Declan Rice and Harry Winks.
Ever since he took the reigns in October 2016, and even during his World Cup summer of love in Russia, there has been one huge glaring problem for Southgate.
A gaping black hole in midfield, where England possessed no players who even approached world class.
Jake Livermore had been starting competitive matches and Southgate ended up re-shaping his entire team to try to disguise the deficiency in Russia, playing three central defenders, Jordan Henderson as a single deep-lying midfielder with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard as two ‘number eights’.
Henderson is highly-valued as a true vocal leader – far more so than captain Harry Kane.
But ultimately, the Liverpool skipper came up short in England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia.
At the start of Wednesday, you could have claimed that the midfield black hole remained.
By the evening, there was a strong argument to say that Southgate’s two long-term midfield vacancies had been filled – by Rice and Winks.
And this also means that England’s first-choice starting XI for next month’s opening Euro 2020 qualifiers against Czech Republic and Montenegro might well not include a single player over the age of 25 – with Kane the old man of the team.
First came the news Southgate had been confident of receiving, but which was by no means assured, that West Ham’s Rice was switching his international allegiance from the Republic of Ireland to his native England.
Even though he has only just turned 20, Rice is already regarded by Southgate as the best holding midfielder in the country and is likely to go straight into England’s starting line-up against Czech Republic on March 22.
And then, a few hours later, came a wonderfully assured performance from Winks, in Tottenham’s outstanding 3-0 Champions League victory over Borussia Dortmund.
Winks, who turned 23 a couple of weeks ago, has finally emerged as a nailed-on starter for Spurs.
He is a late developer, always valued by Mauricio Pochettino, but never loaned out and therefore inexperienced for his age.
Before this season Winks had played in only 37 Premier League matches, yet this campaign has been a breakthrough – with 15 starts and eight more appearances as a sub.
His progress allowed Spurs to off-load Mousa Dembele, the playmaker.
Southgate has long been an admirer of Winks, knowing his comfort on the ball was exactly what England were lacking, but he has needed to be patient.
When Winks was man of the match on his England debut, in a dead-rubber qualifier in Lithuania in October 2017, he was immediately pencilled in for a place in the World Cup – only for an ankle injury to rule him out of Russia.
Winks has had even better games than that against Dortmund but the assuredness with which he made the Spurs midfield tick in such a key fixture against the Bundesliga leaders was exactly the sort of evidence Southgate has been waiting for.
With Rice as the anchor man and Winks the more creative force alongside him, the long-term future of England’s central midfield looks far rosier.
Of course both players remain inexperienced and there are likely to be bumps in the road both with club and country – but they both possess rare footballing intelligence and an easiness in possession which was absent among English footballers for too long.
And so to that youthful possible starting XI against the Czechs reads: Pickford (aged 24); Alexander-Arnold (20), Stones (24), Gomez (21),Shaw (23); Rice (20), Winks (23); Sancho (18), Alli (22), Sterling (24); Kane (25).
First-choice Joe Gomez is likely to miss out through injury but 25-year-old Harry Maguire would step in.
Ben Chilwell (22) could get the nod in front of Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford (21) might start ahead of Sancho. Eric Dier (25) will remain a versatile squad man.
It’s still all remarkably young.
England’s team has been getting progressively younger under Southgate, who trusts and values the technical qualities of those emerging from the FA’s age-group system.
Of the older World Cup squad members, Gary Cahill and Jamie Vardy have retired, Ashley Young has been phased out, while right-backs Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier have dipped in form, with Danny Rose in and out of the Spurs starting line-up.
And so the acceleration of Southgate’s youth policy continues.
The 18-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi could well be starting for Bayern Munich next season, given that they are prepared to pay at least £35milion for the Chelsea kid. Great things are also expected of another 18-year-old, Phil Foden.
These are exciting times for Southgate and England, with the Nations League finals to come this summer, followed by a Euro 2020 tournament in which they are scheduled to play most of their matches at home.
The emergence of Rice and Winks will have heartened him all the more.
In fact you could even describe this emerging young team as a gold… er… as a golden … no, stop it, let’s not go there.
IT’S FA Cup weekend and that means people will be talking up the importance of the trophy to mid-table Premier League clubs.
Clearly the Cup is never going to be the No 1 priority for the Big Six – even if Chelsea v Manchester United will have plenty riding upon it on Monday night.
And clubs fighting relegation will obviously have survival at the forefront of their minds.
So after Leicester, Everton, Bournemouth and West Ham all messed up their chances, that leaves Watford and Wolves to be fully focused on the fifth round.
Except that Watford boss Javi Gracia, whose side take the short trip to QPR tonight, has made wholesale changes in third and fourth-round wins at Woking and Newcastle.
That leaves just Wolves, who struggled past Shrewsbury in the last round, to give it their all at Bristol City on Sunday.
Maybe it’s going to be their year then? Although, in the entire 26-year Premier League era how middle-ranking top-flight clubs have won the FA Cup?
Just two: Everton in 1995 and Portsmouth in 2008.
Not as up for the Cup as all that then.
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