England manager Gareth Southgate has already selected one Championship player, goalkeeper Jack Butland, in his time as the national team boss. More could be set to be added to that list yet, according to the 48-year-old.
“We can’t rule out Championship players”
Those are Southgate’s own words, as reported by the Daily Mail.
There is a sense that selecting players from the second tier would be a kind of low point for the national team, which is understandable to an extent. However, by disregarding the entire division’s worth of talent based upon its standing in the domestic league pyramid is to voluntarily reduce England’s selection pool by a significant extent.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there are several English players currently plying their trade in the Championship who would have what it takes to make it at international level.
Dele Alli, for instance, made his England debut on October 9th 2015, at which point he had only been a Premier League footballer for a couple of months. Prior to making his debut for Spurs – on August 8th 2015 – the highest level he had played at was League One.
Either, in the space of those few short weeks Alli improved from being a League One standard player into an England standard player, or before that he had simply already been an international standard player who happened to be in League One. The latter seems much the more likely and also proves that there is top quality to be found in the lower divisions.
Alli is hardly the only example either. James Maddison has made a brilliant start to life in the top flight with Leicester City since joining from Norwich City in the summer and it could easily be argued that he is worthy of earning his first England cap. He was just as impressive for the Canaries last time out, but there was no clamour for his inclusion on the international stage then despite a creative No. 10 being exactly the kind of player Southgate’s squad desperately lacked.
Not only is it becoming increasingly obvious that there are top quality English players in the Championship, but they’re improving too.
In the 2014/15 Championship campaign, 405 English players contributed a total of 492 goals across the course of campaign. Last season, the 357 Englishmen in the division racked up 643 goals between them. Not only that, but 233 of those goals were scored by players under the age of 25, who are likely to still have their best years ahead of them.
This dramatic rate of improvement comes as a result of a variety of factors. First of all, the competition for places in the Premier League has forced many top young talents to have to drop down a tier in order to secure regular game time. Whilst that may be considered a fault with the Premier League system, some time spent developing away from the intense glare of speculation and pressure that is persistently trained upon the top flight may actually be beneficial to these youngsters’ progression in the long run.
Secondly, the standard of coaches and management in the Championship now is better than ever before. No longer a motley crew of ragtag sides playing varyingly ugly forms of kick and rush, many Championship outfits now play extremely technical and aesthetically pleasing football.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United are the finest current example of this. So far this season, the Whites top the league in terms of amount of passes completed, pass completion percentage, possession percentage, least long balls per match and shortest average passing distance. They’re also top of the league in the traditional sense too – and unbeaten.
What’s more, including Premier League teams, Leeds are behind only Manchester City and Chelsea in terms of average share of possession per match. Last season, almost exactly the same Leeds squad, under the guidance of Paul Heckingbottom, finished 13th.
The English players playing this kind of progressive football in the Championship are proving themselves to be equipped for the level of the Premier League and international football. Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and Bradley Dack of Blackburn Rovers are both tremendously exciting attacking midfielders currently in the kind of form that would warrant an England call up were they playing for Premier League sides.
Looking beyond Butland, perhaps the England manager shouldn’t be afraid to take a chance on second tier high flyers such as these. After all, were either Grealish or Dack to be snapped up in January by Premier League sides they’d probably soon get the call then, but they wouldn’t have suddenly transformed into vastly better players.
With all of this taken into account, why wouldn’t Southgate be prepared to delve into the Championship for his Three Lions selections? The Premier League is full of established stars who have previously failed to shine for England – the Championship is full of young, hungry players desperate and deserving of their own chance to represent their country.