With Germany in something of a slump, Italy improving but still inexperienced at the sharp end of tournaments, and Spain lacking the depth of the previous generation, the national team out of Europe’s “big four” (nations that have lifted both the World Cup and European Championships) favored by the bookies is France. The door is open for one of three countries harboring golden generations of players.
Outside of family lineage, a generation is a tricky thing to define. The flux of bodies through an institution—in this case, a national soccer team—cannot easily be separated out. Doing so is inherently arbitrary, certainly not scientific, though nevertheless useful. We have chosen a figure of seven years, which would in theory allow players of, say, 26 and 19 years of age to play a cycle of four tournaments together: two World Cups and two continental Championships. Part 1 of our look at these Golden Generations is here. This is England.
The last time Wembley Stadium hosted a semifinal and final of the European championships, back in 1996, England was a nation giddy with optimism, a sentiment both provoked and encapsulated by the Lightning Seeds’ hit single with comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, “Three Lions”: “Three Lions on a shirt / Jules Rimet still gleaming / Thirty years of hurt / Never stopped me dreaming … ” Football was coming home, they sang, and after a 4-1 group-stage evisceration of Netherlands, followed by a cathartic penalty shoot-out victory over Spain, the English were indeed dreaming. Then came Germany—as at Italia ’90—and the trauma of a semifinal elimination on spot kicks, with current manager Gareth Southgate missing the decisive penalty.
The past is another country, however, and the Britpop-fueled buoyancy of that summer has given way, especially since June 2016, to the polarization and angst of post-Brexit England and the wider United Kingdom (a country literally divided and at odds with itself). Twelve months ago, several months into the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation’s cities, with statues of former slave traders toppled. Far-right “counterprotests” followed, centered on “defending” the totemic statue of Winston Churchill—for some, a sacred symbol of past national greatness (a nostalgic hankering that played no small part in the Brexit decision), for others a more complicated figure whose unthinking veneration is symptomatic of Britain’s unwillingness to reckon with its past. (Those Germans, excellent penalty takers, are adept at formulating precise words for such concepts.)
These culture-war skirmishes have bubbled away—as has the determination for that reckoning, that Vergangenheitsbewältigung—and now the newest focus is on the pre-match gesture of taking a knee, with one Tory MP announcing he will boycott England’s matches for this reason. Taking a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement began in empty stadiums last June, but the return of fans has again made it a hot-button topic. The action was met with booing by sections of the crowd at England’s final two Euros warmups—1-0 victories over Austria and Romania—although, perhaps symbolically, this was soon drowned out by cheers and applause. Goal scorer and debutant captain against the Romanians, Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, has been vocal in his denunciations of racism but also a rare unifying figure in the British polity, arguably the most popular man in the country. Twice he has forced a government with a huge majority to U-turn on its decision to stop subsidizing free school meals during holidays, even drawing admiration from United’s traditional foes, Liverpool, Leeds, and Manchester City. It all provides a very different backdrop than the heady days of Euro ’96, albeit with the possibility that the upcoming tournament might prove a national watershed, a moment of healing, particularly if a hugely talented generation of players can do collective justice to their unquestionable individual talents.
Southgate, now in his fifth year with the senior team, is a dignified, articulate, and deceptively steely leader, not least in his vocal advocacy of taking a knee. Having guided England to the semis of the 2018 World Cup, followed a year later by third place in the inaugural Nations League, the former England under-21s manager has selected the Euros’ third-youngest squad. It would have been even younger still but for injuries to Liverpool’s defensive duo, Joe Gomez (24) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (22).
At the top end of this golden generation’s age range is Manchester United’s 28-year-old captain, Harry Maguire, the world’s most expensive defender. Skipper and talisman Harry Kane (Golden Boot winner in Russia) is 27, as are goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and center back John Stones, the latter rejuvenated by the arrival of Rúben Dias at Manchester City last summer after an indifferent couple of seasons. Stones’s teammate at the Etihad, 26-year-old winger Raheem Sterling, is the squad’s most capped player with 61 appearances. All five started the semifinal against Croatia in Moscow, while 14 members of that 23-man squad are absent this time, which is indicative of the wave of young talent that has emerged since then.
Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year Luke Shaw is a nine-season Premier League veteran at 25, and the same age as Aston Villa’s mercurial playmaker Jack Grealish and Leeds’ underrated “quarterback,” Kalvin Phillips. Shaw’s fellow left back, the Champions League–winning Ben Chilwell of Chelsea, is 24, as is likely reserve goalkeeper Dean Henderson of Man United and Everton’s vastly improved and spring-heeled striker, Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Rashford is already a 41-cap veteran at 23—it is easy to forget, amid the inspirational activism, just what a brilliantly twinkle-toed footballer he is—and yet it’s his juniors on the squad that have really set English pulses racing.
West Ham’s coveted Declan Rice and Chelsea’s Mason Mount—likely midfield partners, be that in a double-pivot or a three—are just 22 and arguably already their respective clubs’ key players. Then there are the three 21-year-olds: Chelsea full back Reece James, accomplished at both ends of the pitch and one of an abundance of excellent English right backs; Manchester City’s willowy creator Phil Foden, “the Stockport Iniesta”; and Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho, twice voted to the Bundesliga Team of the Season and an under-17s World Cup winner alongside Foden in 2017.
Even younger than this trio are the next-gen talents of Arsenal’s winger-cum–full back Bukayo Saka (19) and Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham (17), voted Newcomer of the Season by his fellow Bundesliga players (curiously, Borussia have more players on the squad than either Spurs, Arsenal, or Liverpool), while Manchester United’s two-footed finisher Mason Greenwood, another 19-year-old, was ruled out through injury. It is an embarrassment of riches, at least in forward and attacking-midfield positions.
This golden generation can in part be traced to previously elusive success in youth football—England won a youth World Cup double in 2017, also winning the under-20s tournament, with Calvert-Lewin scoring the only goal of the final. The under-19s bagged that year’s Euros, beating Portugal 2-1 to lift the trophy. Meanwhile, the country’s changing urban demographics have thrown up such curiously fertile hot spots as South London’s “concrete Catalonia,” which, in the past few years, has yielded Rice, Gomez, Sancho, his under-17s World Cup–winning teammates Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea and Arsenal’s Emile Smith-Rowe, as well as Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze (and Wilf Zaha, although he has opted to play for Côte d’Ivoire), and Man United’s $70 million full back, Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
In the main, though, it is the effect of Premier League hothousing—England’s 23 domestically based players is the highest of teams in the tournament—with Arsène Wenger’s prophetic words about the perils of protectionism ringing truer than ever (comments he made in opposition to eventually abandoned 2015 proposals to expand the Premier League “homegrown player” quota from eight to 12). Only the very best make it through to the first-team squads of the elite clubs, and they have to be better than ever before. The way Pep Guardiola has nurtured Foden may be his biggest favor to English football yet.
Of course, the England team has been here before with a golden generation and the concomitant sackful of yearning optimism, all ripe for bursting. A little more than six years in age separate Sol Campbell, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, and Ashley Cole—914 England caps and 18 Champions League final appearances between them, yet never reaching an international semifinal. Partly, Ferdinand has said, this was because inter-club rivalries made players guarded, preventing deep bonding, but it also owed something to coach Sven-Göran Eriksson’s IKEA-stiff 4-4-2, not to mention the calamitous reign of his successor, Steve McLaren. Back then, the debate was whether the all-action Lampard and Gerrard could play together (overlooking how many of the European cognoscenti rated Scholes the best of the three). This time around, the argument is whether three players heading into their first senior tournament—Mount, Foden, and Grealish—can be accommodated in the same XI. The answer will principally depend on the formation, with Southgate having largely alternated between a 3-4-3 and 4-3-3, each with subtle variations, although occasionally deploying a 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2.
A back three will reunite the defensive line from that Moscow semifinal against Croatia: Maguire, Stones, and Kyle Walker, who at 31 is the oldest (and quickest) player on the squad. Wing backs will be a straight choice between Shaw and Chilwell on the left, James and Atlético Madrid’s La Liga–winning Kieran Trippier on the right. The midfield pair in this system could well be best mates Rice and Mount, particularly given the lack of recent match time for Jordan Henderson, whose leadership and organizational qualities might otherwise be attractive for the caginess of tournament football. Kane is a lock at center forward, which would leave two from Grealish, Rashford, Sterling, Sancho, Saka, and Foden for the wide berths. The adaptable Mount can also play there.
With England this stacked in the creative positions, the obvious (and perennial) question then becomes whether the system should fit the personnel or vice versa. Apparently, the rocket scientists advocate playing to your strengths. Thus, on Spain’s run to victory at the 2012 Euros, they solved the “problem” of their super-abundance of world-class midfielders by playing six of them in a 4-3-3, with Cesc Fàbregas as a false nine, Andrés Iniesta and David Silva outside of him, and Xavi, Sergio Busquets, and Xabi Alonso directing the play from deeper. It went quite well.
Should Southgate opt for 4-3-3, Mount and Foden could play as “free eights,” dictating buildup ahead of Rice, and allowing Grealish to play off the left wing where he has been so devastating for Aston Villa (1.65 points per game with him, 1.0 without), which will leave Sancho, Sterling, and Rashford fighting it out for the right flank. That trio’s speed on the counterattack is arguably less essential against sides sitting deep with a low block—as is likely to be the case with two Group D opponents, Scotland and Czech Republic, if not Croatia—and more useful later in the tournament against bolder teams.
Mount’s versatility, consistency, energy, tactical intelligence, and selflessness make him an almost certain starter. Player of the Tournament in that 2017 under-19s European Championship success, he then spent a year on loan at Vitesse Arnhem, picked for the Eredivisie Team of the Year at 18, before spells under Lampard at Derby then back at Chelsea, where he immediately became a starter. Any churlish suggestion that Mount was favored has been dispelled by him becoming an undroppable cog in Thomas Tuchel’s Champions League–winning machine, laying on the final’s only goal and landing Chelsea’s Player of the Year award.
Foden’s education under Pep, where he absorbed lessons from the masterful Silva, has bequeathed England a generational talent. Despite his recent haircut, however, the Paul Gascoigne comparisons are wide off the mark. Possessing a sublime first touch, a wand-like left foot, an adeptness both at using subtle body feints for 5-meter surges that break defensive lines and playing close-quarters passing combinations (quintessential Pep), Foden is a silky technician rather than a maverick, an Iberian footballer in all but passport.
Grealish is an altogether different animal. Memorably described as having “legs like Spanish hams” and “a hairdo like a Monte Carlo widow’s dog,” the Villa talisman is equal parts powerhouse and trickster, a truly psychedelic footballer in the mould of a Zinédine Zidane or Gascoigne, to whom he is the roguish heir. Like Gazza—whose iconic goal and equally iconic binge-drinking celebration against Scotland got the Euro ’96 party started—Grealish takes the ball in tight areas, dribbles with purpose and imagination, and swats off defenders as though they were mosquitos. Given a fair wind, he could be the tournament’s breakout star.
Finding a way to fit these three disparate, stellar talents into the starting XI, rotation notwithstanding, may go a long way to deciding England’s fate. The “Years of Hurt” counter has ticked up to 55, Jules Rimet is in need of a polish, yet the inveterate dreaming this time has some credibility to it. England has a great chance to not only win the tournament, but perhaps also advance the process of national rapprochement.
Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, VICE, ESPN, i-D and New Statesman, among others.