World Cup 2018: Young England squad will benefit from Russia performance

By Phil McNultyChief football writer in St Petersburg, Russia

England will return from the World Cup with reputations enhanced and a new mood of optimism around the national side, despite finishing fourth after a 2-0 play-off loss to Belgium.

So when the dust settles and manager Gareth Southgate debriefs with his trusted backroom team, what will have emerged from this creditable campaign in Russia for England to focus on?

Southgate can build on firm foundations

England will not only return from Russia with confidence and self-belief increased, Southgate also has firm foundations to build upon towards Euro 2020.

Jordan Pickford demonstrated the temperament and quality to succeed at the elite World Cup level, not simply coping with the high-intensity pressure of the knockout stages but thriving on it.

He is still only 24 and if he avoids mishaps, can be England's first choice goalkeeper for years to come.

Harry Maguire and John Stones look set to be the bedrock of England's defensive set up while Harry Kane, at 24, has the capacity to be captain and most reliable marksman for the next era.

The squad also has a younger element who will benefit from the highs and lows of the last month here in Russia, such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, while the likes of Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard all have their best years ahead of them.

It remains to be seen how much further involvement elder statesmen such 32-year-old Gary Cahill and Ashley Young, who was 33 during this World Cup, will have.

Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, 31, was on the fringes in Russia and is unlikely to be a starter when England resume action - much will now depend on his form for the Foxes.

England must find midfield creator

If there is an obvious weakness in this England side, it is the lack of a creative midfielder to complement the tireless Jordan Henderson in the hub of Southgate's side.

This became clear when England lost control of the semi-final against Croatia in Moscow and the brilliant Luka Modric manipulated possession and orchestrated his side's eventual victory.

It was also on shown in the final game against Belgium, who settled the match decisively in their favour with the sort of creative quality England are currently struggling to find.

Jack Wilshere was the obvious candidate but his natural gifts have been diminished by injuries and his form before leaving Arsenal for West Ham United did not make a compelling case for inclusion.

Newcastle United's Jonjo Shelvey has his supporters because of his range of passing but would have to provide long-term evidence that lack of consistency and an erratic temperate were problems that had been cured.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek has shown enough to suggest he might grow into the role while Watford's Nathaniel Chalobah is another prime contender for a midfield slot when Southgate names his squad for the Uefa Nations League game against Spain at Wembley on 8 September.

He will also hope Tottenham's Harry Winks can finally emerge from his lengthy injury absence to build on his impressive introduction with England, and at club level in the Champions League.

Southgate needs to find that solution because the passing pain inflicted by Modric was an example of what can happen if you are not smart enough or creative enough in possession.

Southgate can utilise England's young guns

England's under-17s and under-20s side have experienced the elation of winning a World Cup and there are plenty of youngsters with the potential to catch Southgate's eye over the next two years.

Manchester City's Phil Foden will hope to get enough chances under Pep Guardiola - a huge admirer - to force his way in after being named player of the tournament at the under-17 World Cup.

Jaden Sancho, like Foden just 18, is plotting the next phase of his career in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund while Ademola Lookman, a key member of England Under-20's World Cup winning side, is back at Everton after a loan spell at RB Leipzig in Germany.

Fulham's Ryan Sessegnon looks certain to take over from Ashley Young in the left wing-back slot while Bournemouth's talented midfielder Lewis Cook, at just 21, has already made his mark on Southgate.

Chelsea have another highly-promising youngster in Mason Mount, the 19-year-old midfielder who had a fine season on loan with Vitesse in the Dutch Erdivisie.

Liverpool's 21-year-old defender Joe Gomez may have been at this World Cup but for an ankle injury that he initially sustained playing for England against the Netherlands in Amsterdam in March, and which eventually required surgery.

Southgate has noted just how comfortable he looked at international level, with the versatility to play on the right side or in central defence.

England will certainly have no shortage of young contenders fighting for their share of the senior action.

Get Sterling scoring

Southgate clearly regards Raheem Sterling as a key component in England's future - admitting he was bemused that the Manchester City player's place in the side had been questioned in some quarters.

This is admirable loyalty and no-one would question Sterling's attitude and ability, as he proved in his outstanding Premier League title-winning season at Manchester City.

Sterling, however, can certainly be questioned about his lack of productivity for England over a very long period.

Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling started six games in the World Cup and was substituted in five of them

After being substituted in the third-place play-off against Belgium, he has now failed to score in 26 England games stretching back to his goal against Estonia in October 2015.

In 12 games at major tournaments he has not scored and only has one assist - and he has just two goals in 44 England games with nine assists.

For all the endeavour, these are deeply unimpressive statistics and there will come a time when a record like that, if it continues, becomes unsustainable for an England attacking player.

England must take the great leap forward

This England side is learning on the job - and now Southgate must turn the promise and potential of Russia into even better results against the superpowers.

Southgate himself said England cannot regard themselves as a big team until they beat big teams and when it came to the crunch against Croatia, ranked 20th in the world, in the semi-final they just could not quite deliver.

England have also now lost twice to third-ranked Belgium here in Russia so there is still clearly both a footballing and psychological barrier to cross. The Belgians had the quality and were more clinical in the crucial areas, a familiar problem.

England are a work in progress and have come so far from the embarrassment against Iceland in Nice in 2016 - but the next vital step is that big result Southgate craves.

It may help England achieve the required results if they made more use of the finishing instincts of Kane, whose six goals came from three penalties, two as a result of corners, and with the other an unwitting deflection from Ruben Loftus-Cheek's shot.

He ended the World Cup with six goals from six shots on target but only had one on target in his final four World Cup matches, his penalty against Colombia.

Southgate will be going through the fine detail of England's campaign and this is one area he will have to address.


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