Gareth Southgate believes England are better placed to succeed at the European Championship than they would have been if the tournament been held as planned earlier this year.
The coronavirus pandemic turned the international calendar – like everything else in the world – upside down, preventing Euro 2020 from kicking off as scheduled in June.
Southgate said there was no other decision to make as the competition “just wasn’t important” given the Covid-19 crisis, which will hopefully have eased somewhat by the time the tournament comes around in 2021.
That rearrangement may have boosted the Three Lions’ chances of Euros success, with the hectic autumn schedule providing a better platform to progress than last autumn’s matches as more exciting talents got the chance to blossom.
“Last autumn’s games were a bit of a red herring for us because we rattled up a lot of goals but we weren’t tested,” Southgate said after ending 2020 with a 4-0 win against Iceland as England finished third behind Belgium and Denmark in their Nations League group.
“We didn’t have to break down top level defences (last year) and we didn’t have to defend against top-level teams.
“This autumn for our development has been far more important and far more worthwhile.
“We’ve got this strange split in the squad where half of the squad from Russia have drifted away really.
“They’re not playing with their clubs or have retired from international football, so we’ve got a lot of guys who were the base of the team against Iceland – Trippier, Walker, Dier, Maguire, Pickford – who have good experiences and have started to build a lot of caps.
“But then we have this younger group who are really innocent at international level in terms of the number of caps and experiences and a lot them are so young as well.
“We’ve got to keep improving and they’ve got to learn from all the experiences they’ve had but I think we are definitely in a better place than we would have been after last autumn because those games weren’t the challenge we needed to improve.
“This autumn’s games have and so we’ll be better placed for next summer, whether we will be far enough ahead only time is going to tell.
“But we feel happier about the depth we’ve got from last autumn, we feel very excited about the young players coming through and that is going to be for now but even more so two, four, six years’ time.
“We think England are in a good position for the future.”
The emergence of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka have been among the biggest positives of the autumn, adding strength, skill and extra boldness to the England squad.
“Generally speaking, young people have less fear,” Southgate said.
“They have more belief in what is possible.
“I think they are allowed more freedom than we were when we were younger and I think each generation increases that and loosens those strings a bit.
“There is a balance with that because they still need guidance and still need good role models around the and the senior players help that happen.
“When you say how comfortable the young players look, that is a great credit to the senior players. They allow them to express themselves but in return they demand that respect. The young players have found a nice balance.
“I was just speaking to Jude Bellingham before he left and he had that perfectly.
“He’s come in with humility, he’s grown in confidence on the pitch, but the players have respected him because of how he’s come in and been respectful of them.
“That is the environment we’ve got and we’ve always wanted to create an environment where players can come in and express themselves on the pitch and play the way they do for their clubs and I think you saw that against Iceland with the young players that played.”
Now Southgate has to play the waiting game, keeping his fingers crossed that England’s players can stay fit over a busy winter having dealt with absentees throughout the autumn.
The current climate means the former defender will have to lean on Zoom to keep in contact with a group that will not meet again until March’s World Cup qualifiers – the last camp before the Euros.
The condensed season also means Southgate will have less time than usual with his players before the tournament gets under way, providing some logistical challenges.
“Before the World Cup we gave them a period of holiday and we think that is important psychologically as well as physically,” he added.
“Of course, we hope people will be able to travel to go away by that point but that is a bit of an unknown.
“The scheduling will be complicated but we have very good people for planning and physical periodisation and we’ll just have to adapt and adjust.
“It is less time than normal for a tournament, but it is more time than we get for the regular camps and our time on the training pitch we use well, we feel the team develops well on the field and pick up the messages well.
“We back that up off the field with the meetings we have. You’d always like more time with the players, but we’ll maximise what we’ve got.”