What a few years it has been as an England fan. Gareth Southgate has been nothing short of a revelation since the coach took charge of the Three Lions, with fans starting to dream of a first major title in 53 years.
Southgate’s rejuvenation of England came to a head when they reached the last four of the World Cup for the first time since 1990 in the summer, with England going out in extra time, having lead against Croatia. However, England’s incredible journey in Russia united a nation, with the euphoria across the country impossible to avoid.
It was no fluke, either, with England having climbed to fourth in the FIFA rankings, as they continue to go from strength to strength, riding on the crest of the Premier League wave, after English teams’ success in European competition this season. 53 years of hurt could well be remedied come June.
How they qualified
The Nations League campaign did not get off to the best of starts as they slipped to a 2-1 defeat to Spain at Wembley last September, despite having taken the lead through Marcus Rashford, before an underwhelming draw in Croatia did little to persuade fans the Nations League was overly worthwhile.
However, just three days later, a breathtaking attacking display in the first half of the Group A4 clash with Spain in Seville blew their opponents away, eventually earning England a 3-2 victory – England’s first win in Spain since 1987 – to set up a winner-takes-all clash with Croatia at Wembley.
Relegation to League B was as much a possibility as earning a place in the inaugural Nations League finals when Croatia visited the English capital in November, and demotion appeared on the cards as England approached the last 15 minutes 1-0 down to their World Cup conquerors.
Nonetheless, England showed great fight to turn the match around and earn a dramatic late 2-1 win after goals from Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane, much to the delight of a sell-out, jubilant Wembley.
England have a pool of talent more multi-faceted than it has been for many, many years, all of an age where they can still improve yet further as elite players.
Dele Alli has helped inspire Tottenham to a Champions League final with some stunning performances along the way, and he compliments his Tottenham teammate Kane perfectly from deep, while Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson is another who has had a fine season, and will provide energetic protection for the England defence.
Liverpool full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold is likely to be selected at right-back following a stellar season for Liverpool, where he registered the most assists (12) for a defender in a single Premier League season in 2018/19.
Leading the line is Kane, who has 17 goals in 20 appearances under Southgate, with support either side from Raheem Sterling – who picked up two individual awards to go with his three garnered during Manchester City’s historic season – as well as Manchester United hitman Marcus Rashford.
Harry Maguire has become first name on the team-sheet under Southgate, and continues to attract attention from the Premier League’s biggest clubs with his form for Leicester, while Jordan Pickford’s distribution in goal fulfils the modern desire for goalkeepers to be the instigators of attacks.
One to watch – Jadon Sancho
What a year in the short life of Jadon Sancho. Very few people had heard of the talented teenager who broke into the Borussia Dortmund first team last season, having been signed as a 17-year-old for £8m from Manchester City.
However, this term, Sancho has not missed a single Bundesliga match for Dortmund as they narrowly missed out on the title to rivals Bayern Munich.
Starting every game for a team of the gravitas of Dortmund, as an Englishman, who only turned 19 in March, is some feat, but to then register more assists (14) than any other player in the league, while also netting 12 times, has made Sancho a world footballing star.
In fact, only Eden Hazard has laid on more goals for teammates in Europe’s top five leagues this season – form which has reportedly persuaded Manchester United to consider breaking the £100m mark to bring Sancho in this summer.
Sancho has four caps already for England, despite the talent pool England can turn to. With Kane struggling for fitness, Sancho could well get his chances in Portugal, either as a central striker or out wide – no matter where he plays, Sancho has the potential to set the Nations League alight.
The manager – Gareth Southgate
Nobody could have foreseen the level of progress Southgate has overseen since becoming England manager, especially given the lack of experience he came into the job with.
One solitary club managerial role at Middlesbrough came and went without great success, before Southgate took over as England Under-21 boss in 2013, where he guided the side to the European Under-21 Championships in impressive fashion, but, as England often do, the Young Lions flopped in the tournament finals, finishing bottom of their group and heading home early.
Few were overly enthused then as Southgate succeeded Sam Allardyce as England coach after Allardyce’s short-lived tenure, but the only way has been up for England ever since.
Southgate put his faith in youth, and evolved the way England approach matches in every way.
There is less emphasis on intricate tactical systems, but no detail is left unturned, with Southgate taking inspiration from other sports to find that additional edge.
Simple things like working on set pieces have proved really fruitful for England, with players looking like they are enjoying being part of the international set up again, rather than international duty being more of an obligation that players from big clubs have had forced upon them.
“There is a change happening in England, and Gareth is at the forefront of that,” former England coach Gary Neville said after England sealed their Nations League final spot.
“What he has done has not been seen over here before – he has taking coaching to the next level.”
Southgate has grand plans for England, and has the tools to carry them forward, with England enjoying unprecedented success at youth level in recent years – now for a senior team trophy.
Expert opinion – Simon Peach
Chief football wrier for Press Association
The run to the World Cup semi-finals will live long in the memory, but there was never any danger of Southgate resting on his laurels after last summer. Keen to stress there was much more to come, topping a group including highly-fancied Spain and semi-final foes Croatia highlighted their progress to the footballing world even more, you could argue, than their run in Russia.
The Three Lions are as good as any team taking part in Portugal, but the pair of all-English European club finals could prove decisive. With 10 of the initial selection involved, it will be a voyage into the unknown for Southgate and his backroom team as they look to deal with the physical and emotional impact of those matches.
There will be a particular focus on skipper Kane’s availability and fitness given his importance as spearhead, while the composition of the midfield against talented Holland in the semi-final will be interesting. This could be a special week for success-starved England if they can negotiate their complicated preparations.