England (3-5-2): Bettinelli; Gomez (c), Chalobah, Dunk; Alexander-Arnold, Chilwell, Mount, Winks, Maddison; Sancho, Rashford
What was that, sir? Did I detect a little… frisson? A shiver, a soft intake of breath, a nervous smile spreading like angels’ wings across those booze-stung lips? Is your heart skipping along ever-so-slightly faster now, sir, your gut alive with the airborne dance of a dozen painted ladies? Welcome to the future, sir. Put down that chair. This is England, and this time we’re going all the way.
You can hang your plastic hat on these lads; this feted and fated set, so much fairer than the last, unmarked by surgery knives and tabloid ink. Not a bad egg among them and so, when you think about it, how can the bacon not be ours to bring on home? None of them have been cuckolded by any of the others yet, sir. As far as we’re aware, not a single one has ever been found in intimate proximity to anyone known as “Auld Slapper”. Tonight, you will see tomorrow, and tomorrow will last for a decade at least. Another pint of wine, sir? No: gratis, eternal compliments of the Cafe del Years of Hurt.
People get really weird about the England football team, especially when almost everything else about this country is so riven and petty and shit. In fairness, the overriding sense of a nation being stuck in your dad’s latest desktop printer paper-jam doesn’t make it any harder to understand that urge to cast around for a better sense of what the future may hold, a kind of surrogate tomorrow we all might be able to tether ourselves to. At a time when it seems there is no one left in England with the authority to decide what should happen next, how can a national team full of shiny, happy, dancing young men, so free of the swarming burdens we must shoulder each day on our trudge towards the smog-choked techno-fascist sunset ahead, not feel like a wild and wonderful escape?
Let’s get back to that frisson. With the withdrawals this week of Luke Shaw and James Tarkowski, it’s now possible to select an XI from Gareth Southgate’s latest squad made up entirely of potential debutants, players aged 21 and under, and Harry Winks, who has one cap and is 22. It’s always exciting when the orphans of a new footballing generation are rounded up like this; it speaks to that need to see and scent the future, also serving in this case to kick us on from the trauma of World Cup semi-final loss to this weekend’s opponents just three months ago. Friday night could see a new set of players failing in the same old English way, of course: ceding possession, crumpling in the clinches, screaming in the engine room. But even in defeat the novelty of fresh names and faces could act as its own kind of cure, an assurance that they at least might be able to learn.
Football is a game in which the future always seems to be in the process of arriving, a phenomenon most obvious in the break-out announcement matches of precocious, epoch-shaping forces such as Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and Kylian Mbappé, players you only have to see once to know they’ll be lurking constantly in your peripheral vision – gurning down at you from A-road billboards and train station pub TVs – for the next ten years. In that regard, James Maddison, Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount will be hoping that tonight is the big night, which only makes it stranger that the contest will play out behind closed doors due to the home fans’ predilection for turning international fixtures into impromptu swastika parties. In the years ahead, if anyone regales you with an “I was there” story about the time Nate Chalobah scored a hat-trick on his international bow, be sure to press them for further anecdotes from their time in the Croatian police force.
That’s a touch facetious; a few others will be there, of course: the stewards, the press, the usual surfeit of UEFA and FA delegates, but for the most part the 8,500-capacity Stadion Rujevica will be eerily empty, the first time England have been faced with this in their 988-match history.
The lack of fanaticism should make for an interesting atmosphere, maybe one more akin to an air show or group therapy session, a chance to see what this England team really is without all the cultural noise that swirls so avidly around them. With only 14 of the World Cup squad remaining, it’s even possible we’ll see a near-instant banishing of the technical deficiencies that above all else did for us as Croatia gradually wrested English hands from the wheel at the Luzhniki back in July, another dead dog of a defeat for the national team to carry round in its big, red bag of dead dogs, another spectre for the pile, another grudge waiting to be exorcised. In the build-up, tonight’s fandom-free event has been widely described as a “ghost game”. In truth, all England games are ghost games.
If football has found many ways to tease, torture and distort our sense of time – giving us the impression that every 30-year-old is a veteran approaching the scrap heap, that the right 90 minutes can be worth waiting a whole week or, in England’s case, 52 years and counting for – then some of the most obvious tricks it plays on the clocks happen out there on the pitch. There is a pantheon of players – Dennis Bergkamp, Andrea Pirlo, Brian “Choccy” McClair – who are said to have carried with them across the grass a pocket of personal space, a kind of force field providing the extra split-seconds to pull off passes beyond the reach and ambition of mere footballing mortals. This is for a while the type of player England have most obviously appeared to lack, though in Man City’s Phil Foden they might well have one lurking in Aidy Boothroyd’s Under-21s.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Until Foden adds some height and sinew to his frame, we have his former teammate Jadon Sancho to peer and gawp at, to pile our hopes and visions of a better future upon. Sancho’s trick is a different one; he’s a player who seems to glide and skitter across the pitch like a firework released at ankle height, an Impressionist blur of control at extreme pace who seems able to render the ball oblivious or at least wholly apathetic to the concept of speed, concussing it gently with each touch, leashing it to the tip of his toe. Sancho’s start to the campaign with Borussia Dortmund has been genuinely astonishing; his nine assists have come at a rate of one every 45 minutes as he’s feinted and weaved his way across the Bundesliga and Champions League group stage as part of what’s been, so far this season, European club football’s most exciting attack.
If any of England’s new recruits are liable to get the heart racing and the butterflies dancing, it’s Sancho, though it’s more than unlikely that he or any of his new contemporaries will start either of the games in this era of Gareth’s strict-but-smiling waistcoat meritocracy. Still, it’s far better to have these problems than to not, and with so much young talent knocking about who would be so heartless as to deny that urge to seek out a few early mainstays, to muddle through the grey areas, confusions and what-could-bes to fixate upon the anchors around whom England’s glorious, frisson-inducing future – and the next decade or so of national fervour – might just be built.