Gareth Southgate’s first post-World Cup England squad was heavily laced with loyalty to those who served him so well in reaching the semi-final in Russia – his latest is imaginative, youthful and a clear signpost to Euro 2020.
England were sterile in losing at home to Spain at Wembley in the Uefa Nations League and in the narrow win over Switzerland in a friendly at Leicester, and this has acted as the catalyst for Southgate to step up his search for midfield creativity, and boost his desire to give the squad a new look.
So who are the key figures in a squad with an average age of only 23.9 years in what could signal a changing of the guard for England under Southgate?
James Maddison – youthful energy and a creative edge
Leicester City’s 21-year-old attacking midfielder was unlucky to miss out on selection for England’s last squad after a highly impressive start to life at The King Power Stadium following his £20m summer move from Norwich City.
Maddison has the youthful energy and creative edge England lacked when it mattered against Belgium and Croatia in Russia, and also in those two games in September.
He is progressive, links midfield and attack well and will also offer an added threat from set-pieces. Southgate will have been impressed with his smooth transition from the Championship to the Premier League, having scored three goals and contributed two assists for Leicester so far this season.
Maddison will be a contender to step into the England spot vacated by the injured Dele Alli, and Foxes’ boss Claude Puel is already delighted with the return on his summer investment.
He said: “James is a strong personality with a lot of character. He’s just 21 but he’s got a lot of maturity. He’s an intelligent player.
“He has good free-kicks and can organise our play. He’s improved since the beginning of the season and I’m happy with his work. I hope he can keep his desire and quality and his desire to improve.”
Maddison has deserved his England reward and has been such a success that one or two in the Premier League’s top six might now be wondering ‘is he one that got away’?
Mason Mount – technically gifted but also a willing workhorse
The 19-year-old on loan at Derby County from Chelsea is a real surprise selection by Southgate, but is a pick that delivers another hint that Southgate is determined not to stand still and rest on the perceived success of Russia.
Mount’s inclusion for the games in Croatia and Spain is also further evidence of Southgate’s willingness to dip into the Championship in this new era – and perhaps also a sign of the current paucity of English resources in the Premier League.
He has been on Southgate’s radar all season and demonstrated his quality and maturity with his performance in Derby County’s win on penalties at Manchester United in the Carabao Cup.
Southgate scouted him personally when Derby played at home to Blackburn in September and Mount – who had not played a senior game for Chelsea – won glowing reviews when he made his England Under-21 debut in Latvia in September, scoring one goal and making another in the 2-1 win.
Mount, who has scored three goals in 11 games this season and is developing under Derby boss Frank Lampard, is technically gifted but also a willing workhorse ready to get his hands dirty.
He has been marked down by Southgate as a future England international for some time – and his chance may come in the next two games.
Jadon Sancho – the ability to make and take goals
Sancho was another heavily touted for England’s double header against Spain and Switzerland in September – but Southgate waited and has now decided the time is right to introduce the 18-year-old with an unusual career storyline.
He was earmarked for a glittering future at Manchester City but took the ambitious step of leaving the comfort zone of Etihad Stadium and moving to the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund in summer 2017. He has been rewarded by becoming the first player born in the 21st century to be picked for England.
Sancho has illustrated his rich promise with Dortmund, signing a new contract until 2022.
He made two goals as they beat Bayer Leverkusen to go top of the Bundesliga, and also produced an assist in their 3-0 win over Monaco in the Champions League. Remarkably, he has more assists than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues.
He is an exciting youngster with pace and the ability to make and take goals. It has proved an irresistible combination for Southgate.
Plus a surprise recall…
Southgate has also dipped into his back catalogue as he looks to solve arguably the most glaring weakness in his side – the lack of a creator in midfield.
It has been an Achilles heel and has resulted in a surprise recall for Chelsea’s Ross Barkley, still only 24, who last played for England in the friendly against Australia at Sunderland in May 2016 before he was totally ignored by then manager Roy Hodgson at the Euros, snubbed by his successor Sam Allardyce and then not considered by Southgate because of injury problems.
They restricted Barkley to just four games last season following his £15m move from Everton to Chelsea but he has been given game time by new manager Walter Sarri this season and is back in favour.
Harry Winks, the 22-year-old who made such an impression on his England debut in the World Cup qualifier in Lithuania in October 2017 before suffering long-term injury, is another given a big opportunity to impress by Southgate along with Watford’s Nathaniel Chalobah, a surprise inclusion having not started a Premier League game this season.
Southampton goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, the oldest player in the squad at 28, will hope to press his claims to move ahead of Stoke City’s Jack Butland as deputy to England’s undisputed first-choice, Everton’s Jordan Pickford.