Side note: I’m off on holiday so won’t be posting. See you in a couple of weeks!
“Franjo?” A reporter near the front raises her hand and I nod for her to continue. “What would you say to the claims that you’re slowly eroding the quality of this England side?” I blink, momentarily taken aback, but quickly put on a composed facade.
“I’ve not really heard those claims.” I reply slowly. “Could you elaborate?”
“Well,” She continues, “Some are pointing towards the fact that you seem to be building around a core of Championship and lower Premier League players, players not proven at the top level and players like Phil Jones whose better days are behind them. You’re also playing an awful lot of them out of their natural positions.” I pause for a moment, parsing the criticism.
“Phil Jones has won 2 Serie A titles in the last 3 seasons.” I say coldly.
“As a centre back.” Another journalist pipes up. “And he’s 32, shouldn’t we be looking towards the future?”
“We are!” I laugh in disbelief. “But they’re apparently too young, so I’m not sure what you want.” I force myself to remain calm, but the dam that holds back the dyke of my 3 decades of international frustration is bulging and straining with the effort of it. “Was Teddy Sheringham too old at 36 when he scored against Greece and got us to the World Cup in 2002? Was Wayne Rooney too young when he broke into the England team at 17? Was he too immature and inexperienced when he was running rings around international defenders in 04 and 06?”
“Probably.” Says the first journalist bluntly. “He stamped on Ricardo Carvalho.”
“Look, there’s no magic formula for this, you know. I’ve been England manager for 3 months and I’m casting a wide net. Yes, that includes some Championship footballers that have impressed me. Yes, that includes some young players who I think can lead us into the future and yes that includes Phil Jones. In Midfield. Any more questions?” The first journalist smiles as she begins scribbling away in her notepad, but nobody speaks. “Right. Cheers.”
Jordan Pickford (Sunderland), Jack Butland (Arsenal), Will Mannion (Norwich City)
John Stones (Liverpool), Michael Keane (Real Madrid), Juddy Lokando (Manchester City), Louis Winterton (Southampton), Harry Winks (West Bromwich Albion), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Real Sociedad on loan from Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Charlie Taylor (Swansea City)
Eric Dier, Dele Alli (Both Tottenham Hotspur), Reece Oxford (Watford), Jordan O’Halloran (Stoke City), Jack Willis (Arsenal), Stuart Coleman (Manchester United), Phil Jones (AC Milan), Adam Bell (Leicester City)
Oliver Webb (Chelsea), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Marcus Rashford (Real Madrid), Frank Udeh (Middlesborough)
I’ve made a few changes for England’s matches against Croatia and Spain and if I’m honest, they’ve been met with some bemusement. The first is in defence, where I’ve chosen to swap out Mason Holgate for his uncapped Southampton teammate Louis Winterton. Holgate’s a fine player and like Winterton he’s in good form, but the way I reason it, there isn’t much difference in ability between the two, Louis has actually been playing at centre back as oppose to Mason, who plays right back for his club and Louis is 7 years younger. It’s really a no brainer. Louis can also play in midfield, which you might think I would utilise given my recent trend of playing centre backs as ball winners, but for me he’s a back liner. He’s not tenacious or aggressive enough to play the midfield role I want.
Let’s talk about keepers for a second, actually. Jordan Pickford’s starting this match and unless he cocks up monumentally, he’ll start against Spain too as he’s my first choice. To be perfectly honest though, I’m not happy with any of the goalkeepers in my squad. Pickford and Butland are both decent but prone to flappy hand syndrome, while Mannion seems fine but will never grow into an international starter. We need fresh blood but I just don’t know where it’s going to come from. There are a few good young keepers playing in the reserves of Premier League teams but until their clubs give them a chance I’m certainly not going to. We’ll keep an eye on that.
Ahead of Pickford, Louis Winterton makes his debut alongside our experienced vice-captain John Stones, Reece Oxford is ahead of them as the half back, while TAA and Shaw are going to be the wing backs. Jordan O’Halloran starts with Stu Coleman in midfield, with Abel playing just behind Oliver Webb and debutant Frank Udeh.
We push Croatia back with some nice football in the opening minutes and our first chance comes when Webb spreads the ball out to the left wing, Shaw heads it into the box and Udeh gets a header on goal, but he can’t find enough power and the effort’s caught by Maric.
After quarter of an hour, Croatia have their first go when Damjanovic surges onto the left wing from a central position and drills what I think is a cross against the near post. To be fair, Pickford had it covered anyway. A minute later, Damjanovic cuts in from the right but is dispossessed by a perfect Coleman slide tackle, sending the ball sliding away across the turf towards our box. Krovinovic picks up the loose ball, finds a yard of space ahead of Stones and places a shot into the top left corner to give the Croatians the lead.
10 minutes on, Udeh tees a shot up perfectly for Stuart Coleman, who lashes the ball straight down the middle from the edge of the box, forcing Maric to push it behind for a corner, which comes to nothing. On the half hour, Croatian dangerman Vlasic runs at our defence and shoots low and hard towards the corner, but Pickford, in true Pickford style, pulls off an excellent fingertip save and parries the ball right back into danger in the 6 yard box. Luckily Winterton’s there to clear our lines.
Croatia frustrate us for the remainder of the first half and for the majority of the second. On the hour I bring Rashford on for Webb, in the 75th minute we go all out attack and with just 10 minutes to go, we make a rare formation change to a 4-2-3-1. Jack Willis and Harry Kane come on replacing Coleman and Oxford as we pile more and more players forward in search of the equaliser.
We enter injury time still thoroughly frustrated and Harry Kane even picks up a gash on his head, which I hope won’t keep him out of the next match. For now, he’s bandaged up and plays on but it takes us until the 93rd minute to create our next good chance. John Stones plays a long ball forward into the right channel, it bounces over the defence, Rashford brings it down and powers it low past Maric to finally get us back onto level pegging.
I’ll take that. Not exactly a vintage performance but a late goal is always a confidence booster and there were definitely some positives. Winterton for example had a really good debut… Actually no, that’s about it.
Now this is a very interesting development.
While we were busy playing out a forgettable draw against Croatia, Austria were doing us a hell of a favour in the European International League, beating Pep’s Spain 2-1. I assumed that Spain would win and would sit on top of our group on 9 points going into the final match and in doing so, I made an ass out of you and me. Weirdly the shock result doesn’t actually change the context of our match at all though. If Spain were on 9 points, we’d have to beat them in more convincing fashion than they beat us to go to the top of the league and qualify for the Semi-Finals in the Summer. Now though, we’re both on 6 points and we… Need to beat them anyway. If it came down to goal difference a draw would do as we’re doing 6 goals better, but it doesn’t, so it wouldn’t. I am hoping though that losing to the group’s whipping boys will put a dent in Spain’s confidence, which we can take advantage of.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece Oxford and Abel are all coming out of the side to make way for Harry Winks, Eric Dier and Dele Alli, who quite frankly I just trust more. I’m also bringing Frank Udeh out and although Harry Kane’s gashed head has healed up quite nicely, I’m going to start Marcus Rashford ahead of him. Rashford’s been one of our better players under my regime and I think he and Webb are probably our best attacking configuration. The final change is at the back, where Louis Winterton is coming out to be hesitantly replaced by Juddy Lokando. Winterton had a good debut and Lokando made a couple of mistakes in the home tie against the Spaniards that really cost us, but I can’t hold it against him. He’s probably our best defensive prospect going forwards so I have to just trust that he’s learned from that match and put it behind him. Tactically I’m making a little tweak in midfield, with Coleman given a more defensive ball winning role so that Spain can’t break on us through the space we often granted them in the middle last time.
As I step out onto the Nuevo Mestalla touchline, Guardiola appears by my side and claps a hand around my shoulders. “Good luck, my friend and may the best team win.” He smiles. I don’t. It’s time to take your medicine, Josep.
The action begins immediately as Spain barrel through our half and win a corner. Isco swings it in but the ball’s cleared and we counter through Marcus Rashford, who surges dangerously through Spain’s half and lets fly from the edge of the box, sending his shot just wide of the far post. In the 5th minute Isco finds himself in space on the left wing and gets a cross in. Lokando and Pickford both come to claim it but the keeper misjudges the flight of the ball and it’s Lokando that gets to it, rising well to head it clear. The defender’s header gets as far as the edge of the box however and with Pickford still in no man’s land, Pérez takes the opportunity to smash a volley over his head and put Spain into the lead. The corner of my mouth twitches. That was so poor by our number 1. Change is needed.
In the 13th minute we put a lovely move together. Alli sprays the ball out to Winks on the right wing, who holds it up for a second before playing it around the corner to meet the run of Ollie Webb. Webb takes a touch, fizzes a low cross towards the 6 yard box and Dele Alli Arrives to tuck in the equaliser. This is more like it.
2 minutes later we win a corner and Webb goes across to take it. He swings the ball in, it’s headed back out and Alli nods it back out to Webb, who whips a cross in towards the near post… Where Juddy Lokando glances a header across goal and in. I punch the air fiercely as Juddy wheels away to celebrate his first international goal, but then I have to move quickly to restrain Rui Faria, who’s shouting unwritable things towards the home dugout. 2-1 England.
Just a minute after we take the lead however, Spain put together a good move of their own. Isco squares the ball inside from the right and Ramos has all the time in the World to slide it into the path of Pérez inside the box. Pérez cuts it back for Grimaldo, who also has acres of space to send a shot pinballing through the crowd of bodies and into the net. 2-2. The breathless start to the match continues when Rashford slips Alli through straight from kick off, but De Gea keeps the Spurs man’s shot out at his near post. We round off the first half with another chance when Rashford cuts in from the right wing while we counter a failed Spanish attack. Rashford plays it into the channel for Webb, who blasts it left footed and just misses the near post.
The second half starts in a similar vein to the first, with Ramos speeding down the left wing just 5 minutes in and hanging a cross up at the far post for Isco, who heads against the post from point blank range. It’s probably just as well for the sake of mine and Pep’s health that the match calms down a bit after that chance though. The next big chance doesn’t come until the 68th minute when Stuart Coleman wins possession in our box with another perfect slide tackle and Alli punts the ball forward to start a counter attack. Ollie Webb takes it down near the centre circle and curls a great pass over Spain’s defence for Rashford to run onto. The Madrid man has the beating of the defenders and runs through on goal as De Gea rushes out to meet him. Rashford dinks it low… AND IN AT THE FAR POST.
“Come on!” I scream, as my mind races to think of something slightly more constructive to do. “Charlie, Michael…” I gesture over to Taylor and Keane on the bench and signal for them to warm up. We’ll try to soak up pressure for the remaining 20 minutes, with Taylor coming on as a winger capable of tracking back and Keane coming on as a more defensive alternative to winks on the right of defence. We still have plenty of pace that we can use to hit them on the break, so we shouldn’t invite too much pressure onto ourselves.
2 minutes later, Alli fires a weak shot at De Gea, who catches the ball and begins a period of immense Spanish pressure in our half. First Pablo lifts the ball over our defence for Villalibre, who lets it bounce and then half-volleys towards Pickford’s top corner, but the keeper uses his black-cat-like reflexes to tip the ball behind at full stretch. From the corner, the ball’s worked around our box and ends up with Pedro Javier, who drives a low shot which Pickford also turns behind with an excellent diving save. Good lad, Jordan.
5 minutes later, Pablo plays a beautiful, flat diagonal ahead of Lirola on the right wing. Lirola crosses it towards the penalty spot and Villalibre executes a perfect volley, rifling the ball into the back of the net before Pickford can even move. I fear that I may have brought this on myself, but not to worry. We hastily backpedal to the original plan of Project: Pride and introduce TAA in place of Luke Shaw. We now have Trent at right wing back, Taylor at left wing back and Michael Keane in central midfield, making him the 4th centre back I’ve subjected to this mad but fairly successful experiment in the space of 3 months.
With 7 minutes to play and with Spain back at the top of the EIL Division A Group 3 table, Isco finds space on the edge of our box and tries his luck from 25 yards, but it’s easy for Jordan Pickford to catch and he launches the ball up field as he so often does. Webb nods the ball on and Rashford brings it down, then fires it back in front of Webb on the right wing as the travelling fans roar encouragement for the striking pair. Red and white bodies are tearing through the Spanish half in equal measure, determined to either halt or help the developing attack, but they’re all ignored as Webb surges down the right, reaches the byline and pulls it back into the box for RASHFORD!
Pandemonium. Absolute fucking pandemonium as Marcus Rashford nearly takes the net off from 6 yards. People are jumping up on their seats, bottles are being thrown, shirts are coming off… And that’s just in our dugout. Not yet ready to join in the celebrations, I glance over to Pep, who’s stood on the touchline with his half on his chin, blankly staring over towards the Spanish goal. We pull back to our defensive 4-1-4-1 and eventually, after each remaining minute drags on for at least half an hour, we see the game out. We’ve bloody done it. We’ve won the pivotal game in a complete reversal of our previous match up.
My winless record against Josep Guardiola has been ended, Saint George’s cross has been flying throughout, the three lions have been thumped and kissed, Lokando has been vindicated, Rashford has been ruthless and Oliver Webb has just earned himself a mention in my fucking will. The inexperienced players, the out-of-position players, the Championship players, the players past their prime; They’ve all played their part in one way or another in this Group Stage.
So for the love of God, somebody hand me my vindication blanket afore I freeze amidst the icy glares of the tabloid press and while you’re it, hand Mr Guardiola a notebook and a pen, for he must be reminded and he must take note: That, sir, is how you win a fucking league.