Southgate must use upcoming qualifiers as a chance for England’s youngsters to stake their Euros claim
2 min read
England’s final two international outings of 2023 are approaching this week, and with the Three Lions already securing their position at next summer’s European Championship in Germany there is now an opportunity for Gareth Southgate to rotate his starting XI and hand more minutes to the squad’s fringe members and new recruits.
The likes of Ollie Watkins, Conor Gallagher and Marc Guehi have all performed excellently for their respective club sides this term and will surely be called upon for Friday’s clash against minnows Malta, who lie rock-bottom of qualifying Group C without a win in seven attempts.
With a cluster of senior caps between those players, as well as many other lesser-used members of Southgate’s 25-man squad for the penultimate round of qualifiers, fan excitement levels will not necessarily be centred around their inclusion on the teamsheet this week, although it will be welcomed.
The real anticipation will be how well England’s latest call-ups fare should they be trusted with a significant amount of time on the pitch at Wembley on Friday and in North Macedonia next Monday. Chelsea’s Cole Palmer, Manchester City’s Rico Lewis and Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa have all been selected after James Maddison, Calum Wilson and Lewis Dunk each had to withdraw due to injury.
Each have represented England at youth and U21 level but none have made the step up to the senior fold yet and this week’s qualifiers — which are both free of pressure and against, with the greatest of respects, subpar teams who England should comfortably defeat – represents the perfect opportunity for them to showcase their ability on the international main stage.
Of the trio, Palmer’s inclusion was probably the least surprising given his blistering form since joining Chelsea from Manchester City in the summer. The 21-year-old has four goals and four assists in 12 appearances for the Blues and netted the equaliser against his former employers right at the end of a thrilling encounter at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, as Chelsea drew 4-4 with Manchester City.
While it was a little surprising to see Palmer selected ahead of Raheem Sterling, whose recent upturn in form culminated in a sensational performance against City, there is no doubting that the promising young forward deserves a chance to prove his worth to Southgate ahead of Euro 2024.
Palmer is a raw, unfiltered talent who likes to run at defenders and his excellent ability to carry the ball forward in tight spaces provides England with another major threat in the final third. Now he is a regular at Chelsea instead of a bit-part player at the Etihad, we are all witnessing what a phenomenal talent he can be, and at just 21 years of age he is still nowhere near the end of his development as a first-class footballer.
Ezri Konsa will also be desperate to leave a lasting impression during this international break and has a strong chance of nailing down a spot for the Euros if he performs well when called upon. Centre-back is probably the only position where the names that occupy it are as of yet undecided, and the Villa man has been one of the standout defenders in the Premier League this time out.
Konsa has been part of a Villa team that have stormed out of the blocks and currently lie 5th in the league – just a point outside of the top-four. He has been an ever-present figure in the centre of defence, playing every minute of the Villans’ 12 league matches whilst also deputising in a much less familiar right-back role for the clubs’ Europa Conference League outings, where Unai Emery’s side have all but qualified for the knockout phase following three wins from four matches in Group E.
Konsa’s athleticism, speed and versatility can be a major asset for England, who are perhaps lacking where this type of defensive reinforcement is concerned. Should he impress against Malta or North Macedonia (or both, depending on whether he features) this week, we could see yet another homegrown talent unearthed at full international level.
Rico Lewis, England’s final late call-up, wasn’t even born during the Arsenal Invincibles season but will this week be pinching himself at the proposition of lining up for the senior Three Lions side just days ahead of his 19th birthday. Lewis is very much still in his infancy at Manchester City and cutting his teeth at the top level under the guidance of the world’s very best mentor in Pep Guardiola, but his talent is unmissable.
Much like Konsa, Lewis’ versatility will be one of the main reasons that Southgate has decided to select the teenager, with his ability to operate as a holding midfielder, a box-to-box maestro or at wing-back placing him in an extremely advantageous category among his peers.
Working as an understudy to the great Kyle Walker and learning from the wisdom of Guardiola, all the while playing against the planet’s best footballers every day in training will, unsurprisingly, fast-track your development to the top, and Lewis has never looked shy in displaying that.
It remains to be seen just how many minutes Lewis – or indeed any of the three players mentioned here – will be granted this week but one thing is for sure, it would be extremely disappointing if Southgate failed to use the upcoming games as anything but an exercise which will afford England’s exciting new recruits the opportunity their respective season’s have richly deserved.