England reach highest ranking spot for five years
Impressive win over Spain propelled them into fifth
Average age of the line-up was just 24 years old
With success at youth levels having been followed by their best performance at a FIFA World Cup™ for almost 30 years, England fans have fair reason to be positive about the future.
Having had little tangible to delight in during recent years, seeing silverware and prospects transform into positive results at senior level has raised spirits higher than they have been for over a decade.
However, one thing the English had been missing was a landmark victory. A result to allay doubts over whether it was fortune or talent that had been the driving force behind a joyful few weeks for supporters in Russia.
They got that in Spain last month. La Roja had never conceded three in a home competitive game before – England ripped up that statistic inside the first half. Slick passing football executed in a fashion more associated with the hosts was underlined by the opener, taking in all 11 players and dispatched by Raheem Sterling, who scored his first brace for his country.
While having attracted ire thanks to a three-year international goal drought, Sterling – still not 24 until the end of the year – emblemises Gareth Southgate’s side. Bursting with endeavour, the Manchester City winger reflects the dynamism and fearless nature the coach has put at the heart of his team.
The fact the eventual 3-2 win was achieved by the Three Lions’ youngest line-up this century – aged 24 years – only added gloss to the three points. In the starting line-up, only full-back Kieran Trippier was over 25.
Since England won the FIFA U-17 World Cup, following soon after their FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph last year, nine players aged 21 or under have made their debut for the senior team - only three of which have come from those squads.
Southgate’s cubs Players handed debuts in the last year who were 21 or under
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (22, 9 caps)
Joe Gomez (21, 5 caps)
Trent Alexander-Arnold (20, 4 caps)
Ben Chilwell (21, 3 caps)
Harry Winks (22, 2 caps)
Tammy Abraham (21, 2 caps)
Lewis Cook (21, 1 cap)
Dominic Solanke (21, 1 cap)
Jadon Sancho (18, 1 cap)
It’s a fact that underlines Southgate’s focus on having youthful exuberance drive forward his nation’s hopes of future glory. An approach which has been supported with a new four-year contract.
Having already chosen one of the youngest squads in Russia – aged 26, and just days older than those assembled by Nigeria and France – he has only driven down the average age further. And the win over Spain was seen by the coach as crucial in developing these youngsters as international footballers.
"It's a great reference for them - when you're a young player you need wins and positive experiences to refer to, to give you confidence for the future,” the England manager said. "They have to take tremendous belief from that. We won't get carried away - we still conceded two goals - but it will give them huge belief."
Spain’s first home defeat for 15 years, and England’s first there since 1987, helped catapult the Three Lions to their highest spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for over five years. That result in the UEFA Nations League, coupled with a goalless draw against Croatia, has taken them to fifth.
Only two players – Kyle Walker and Jack Butland – were there when England climbed higher - fourth in February 2013. Plenty of Southgate’s current charges could still be on the scene in a decade, but they’re sure to be kept on their toes by those coming up behind them.