Just three months on from the bitter disappointment of losing a first World Cup semi-final for 28 years, England visit Croatia on Friday in the Nations League seeking not only revenge, but also a long-term solution to a familiar shortcoming.
For all the progress made by the Three Lions in a glorious Russian summer, a familiar lack of midfield authority ultimately undid England as Croatia’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic took control of their semi-final to come from a goal down in Moscow.
It was a similar story when Spain came to Wembley last month to puncture England’s feel-good factor by dominating the ball in a 2-1 Nations League win. A run to the last four with the third youngest squad at the World Cup raised expectations of what is to come from a richly talented generation under Gareth Southgate’s tutelage.
However, Southgate has gone even younger in his search for the midfield maestro he believes England have lacked since the days of Paul Gascoigne. Jadon Sancho, 18, and Mason Mount, 19, who made moves to get more first team football, and James Maddison, who jumped to the Premier League, are all rewarded with a first call-up.
Sancho has lit up the Bundesliga since making the brave decision to turn down Pep Guardiola’s pleas to keep him at Manchester City and join Borussia Dortmund last year.
Compared to Neymar by his former England under-16 coach Dan Micciche, Sancho has more assists than any player in Europe’s top five leagues with nine this season, including one in the Champions League.
“I believe in myself, so moving to Germany didn’t faze me,” said Sancho as he faced the media glare for the first time in an England shirt.
“I’m a bit tricky, direct, confident obviously. I believe in myself in one versus one situations.”
Maddison and Mount aren’t yet playing at that level, but they too have shunned the glamour of the top six sides in the Premier League to ensure more minutes on the field.
Wanted by Liverpool as a teenager, Maddison instead moved to Norwich before joining Leicester this summer to join two members of the World Cup squad, Harry Maguire and Jamie Vardy.
“I looked at the Leicester squad and saw Harry and Jamie as regulars in the England set up. I thought that is where I want to be, that is where I want to get to,” said Maddison, who has scored three goals and provided two assists in eight Premier League appearances.
Mount is still a Chelsea player, but after scoring 13 goals on loan at Vitesse Arnhem last season, is enjoying another fruitful loan spell with Derby under former England and Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard.
“He can be top, top level because he’s 19 and plays with ability and quality. Technically he’s brilliant,” said Lampard. Mount has already shown his ability in an England shirt as he was named player of the tournament in winning the 2017 Under-19 European Championships.
Sancho got the same award at the European Under-17 championships last year, as well as being part of the squad that won the Under-17 World Cup, although his participation was limited after being recalled by Dortmund halfway through the tournament to play for the first team.
“The growth in England at the moment is crazy,” added Sancho.
“There’s a lot of great young players out there. They’re so determined to play.
“The Champions League is the greatest stage, so I hope the young players reach their potential and enjoy it too.”