TRaheem Sterling’s resurrection began with a phone call. As England relaxed to their Euro 2016 base at Chantilly, Sterling was perhaps in the biggest slump of his career: out of form, badly singled out by the media and fans, a presence of increasingly marginalized in Manchester City.
Still, while many were content to write off Sterling, his new manager Pep Guardiola was not. And so Guardiola called his downed winger, assured him of his spot, and started making a plan.
In a way, Sterling’s first goal for Euro 2020 was the culmination of that plan. As Kalvin Phillips raced towards the Croatian defense at Wembley, Sterling spotted the opening in the center gap and rushed in. It was not the kind of race he usually did earlier in his career. But under Guardiola, who encouraged him to focus his movement more directly towards goal, Sterling has become more alert to these shortcomings, more adept at timing his runs to exploit them.
Sterling’s run and Phillips pass crossed at roughly a right angle. Here again, Guardiola’s influence is evident. Previously, Sterling had controlled such passes on the outside of his foot, shielding him from the defender, but widening him and wasting time in the process. Now he allowed the ball to pass through his body before shooting for the first time: a simple, scruffy finish, yet created by the kind of movement taught that elevated Sterling to number one for England forwards.
No international team operates in a vacuum. No player improves on their own. This England is undoubtedly the team of Gareth Southgate: a motivated and unified team alchemy in more than the sum of its parts. But in relative terms, Southgate’s time with these players, even those who have played for his age group sides in England, has been negligible. And it is also, in many ways, the team of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino and Marcelo Bielsa and Diego Simeone: the elite club coaches who, over the months and years on the training ground, have refined the skills and awareness now displayed.
Kyle Walker is another who perfected his game under Guardiola’s tutelage. Under the watchful eye of Pochettino at Spurs, Walker has grown into one of the best attacking full-backs in Europe. Guardiola had a different vision. And so, over the past few seasons, Walker has transformed into a largely contained presence: using his speed and positional intelligence as the last line of defense.
Nine minutes into the semi-final against Denmark we saw him in action. Thomas Delaney passed the ball to left-back Joakim Mæhle. Temporarily in the clear, Mæhle advanced with the ball only to find the turbo-powered Walker chasing him, building him up and winning possession. Walker’s ability to quench opposition counterattacks – a skill forged on the Etihad campus – has become essential to the way Southgate’s England play.
You could go through the whole team and tell a similar story. Kieran Trippier rose to prominence at Tottenham but reached a new level under Simeone’s leadership at Atlético Madrid: not just a good full-back, but a leader and one of the most astute tactical minds in the world. team. Luke Shaw flourished at Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who encouraged rather than thwarted the attacking side of his game. Bukayo Saka became Mikel Arteta’s favorite project at Arsenal: initially tried in a variety of positions in order to complete his game, but most recently deployed as Agent of Chaos in the final third. And how many other coaches would have been content to build their offense around an underrated 21-year-old striker, like Pochettino did with Harry Kane in 2014-15?
The gene common to many of these players, of course, is one of the most influential coaches of all. Pochettino, Guardiola, Simeone and many others speak openly about the debt they owe Bielsa and his ideas. While it is an exaggeration to describe Southgate’s England as a side of Bielsa, Argentina’s training school – bravery with the ball, fast and smooth passing, tolerance for individual error, emphasis on transitions and ruthless approach to fitness – is evident not just in England but throughout much of the elite game, and of course in particular to Kalvin Phillips, the Leeds midfielder who has become the heartbeat of the Southgate team.
Perhaps the real moral here, however, is not so much about individuals as it is about internationalism. For all the motives of English exceptionalism that will accompany their appearance in Sunday’s final, the success of the Southgate team owes its origins to much more subtle forces.
The distinct national identity, in football terms, is increasingly dissolved into the myth. Everyone plays much like everyone else these days. All Argentinian and Brazilian players in the Copa América final, except one or two, will be based in Europe. We are all global capitalists now, orbiting increasingly tightly around the big leagues of Western Europe and their inevitable gravity.
So, given the influence of the Premier League and the caliber of coaching it was able to attract, it was perhaps inevitable that English football would end up having its day in the sun. That doesn’t take anything away from Southgate or the quietly impressive infrastructure of St George’s Park or the players themselves.
It’s just to point out that in our infinitely connected world, what we like to call English success, English talent, English investment, comes – much like England itself – from everywhere.