Not just yet, at least.
With the Premier League announcing that they have sold the broadcasting rights to their games for the ludicrous sum of £5.1 billion over the next three years [expected to rise to over £8 billion with the addition of overseas broadcasting rights] a lot of attention has been given to the issues of redistribution of this wealth, both back to grassroots football and the fans. Along similar lines, concerns have sprung up surrounding the development of young English players and the future health of the national team.
While these concerns certainly have foundation, they come at a time of relative optimism for followers of England’s national side as there are a number of young English talents enjoying break-out seasons. At the forefront of these is none other than the wunderkind-du-jour, Harry Kane. It’s easy to see why there are those clamouring for Kane to get a senior squad call-up; after cementing his place as a cult hero at Spurs with his derby day double, Kane added a further goal and an assist to his already impressive season totals at Anfield on Tuesday as Spurs were narrowly denied an impressive point. The turnip-faced prodigy’s 13th league goal of the season [23 in all competitions] drew him level with Charlie Austin as the top English goal scorer in the division. To put that in context, before the midweek games, he had scored more goals in 2015 than either Manchester clubs. Also worth noting is that England regular Danny Welbeck has never managed a double figure league goal tally in a season, while Kane managed that by the start of February. All in all, Harry Kane’s claim to an England spot is stronger than Stannis Baratheon’s claim as the rightful heir to the Iron Throne of Westeros.
That being said, Harry Kane should not play for England.
The reason for this is a simple one – his time would be much better served continuing with Gareth Southgate’s under-21 squad. Let’s make no bones about it: England’s Euro 2016 qualifying is a waste of everyone’s time really. The next two fixtures for the senior team are against Lithuania at home on March 27th and Italy away on March 31st. These are then followed by a friendly against the Republic of Ireland on June 7th and a qualifier against Slovenia on June 14th. These are all games of little significance or consequence.
Meanwhile, over the same time period, the under-21 squad have friendly fixtures against the Czech Republic [the host nation of the finals] and Germany [extremely competent performers at youth level] on the 27th and 30th March respectively, before they embark on their under-21 European Championship campaign on the 18th June, followed by fixtures against Sweden and Italy to round out their group games.
Rather than perhaps getting a cameo in a couple of competitive fixtures in the senior set-up with, truth be told, very little at stake, Harry Kane’s development would benefit from establishing himself further in Southgate’s squad and getting significant minutes in serious competitive games with plenty on the line. Kane played an integral role in the qualifying campaign for the tournament in the Czech Republic with the highlights being an incisive hat trick against San Marino and further goal scoring contributions against Moldova, Lithuania and Croatia. During the latter half of the campaign, Southgate was able to name a relatively settled side and this allowed a partnership between Kane and Berahino to blossom, leading to a lethal cutting edge for the Young Lions. It is in the interest of the players themselves, as well as the senior squad, that these players are allowed to continue to play together rather than being dropped in the deep end for a number of reasons:
1.Experience of tournament football is vital
Getting first-hand experience of tournament football is more important to young footballers than minor involvement with the senior team. This is true both on and off the pitch as the physical, tactical and psychological rigours of tournament football are different to those of club football. On the pitch, players have to deal with playing a number of games in quick succession against a variety of different teams who might require different tactical approaches. These tournaments are often played in different climates than players are used to. Additionally the psychology of tournament football can be significantly different: the aforementioned alternative approaches to different opponents, the versatility required to quickly change approaches based on results elsewhere [in the group stages at least], the physical and mental strength require to prepare for the potential eventuality of extra-time and penalties.
As for off the pitch, tournament football provides a different set of unique challenges. First of all there is the fact that the competition will occur in June after the season has finished. The number of young players playing a lot of first team football for Premier League clubs is encouraging but the worry of burnout is one that is often at the forefront in arguments about development. However, dealing with the physical and mental fatigue that might be setting in after a long, hard season is going to be an issue for any player that has aspirations of playing in World Cups or European Championships at any level, so learning how to overcome that at an early age could hold young players in good stead. Similarly, the psychological and physical effects of playing games in quick succession, often after a lot of travelling, is going to be learning curve for players.
Similarly, there will likely be a departure from their norm in terms of training, travelling and recovery between games, all of which provides their own obstacles to overcome. On top of all that, there is dealing with the potential boredom of large periods of down time between games which is an issue that has plagued England players at international tournaments in the past. To summarise, these youth competitions should act as an important trial run for players dealing with both the footballing and logistical experience of participating in a competitive international tournament and provide them with the means to flourish in similar environments at senior level.
2.The burden of responsibility
This is a “big fish in a small pond” type scenario. All too often we’ve seen young players break through into the senior team and, either through being over-awed by the occasion or being instructed to play in a different manner, fail to deliver on their promise/ club form. Allowing players to develop into leaders in a side of their age group seems more important to mental progress than being a bit part player. One of the most impressive things about Harry Kane has been the immense maturity he has shown in his performances. After working hard in the limited opportunities he was given in the Europa League and taking the opportunities presented to him, he seamlessly has made the transition into leading the line of a team in the hunt for Champions League football. He shows respect but no dear to his often more experienced opponents and never shirks the responsibility of the ball or of the hard work that is demanded of him by Pochettino’s playing style. Coupled with a surprising grace and composure, as well as deceptive pace and technique, it’s no wonder that he has had an outstanding season so far.
It is now important for Kane to develop those same attributes in the context of the international game. Playing with his international peers will be a different experience than that of playing with his club colleagues but his performances should hold in him good stead and position him as a senior player within that under-21 squad. That maturity should enable him to become a leader in the pitch and the dressing and is a vital component of being a good international player. England’s national sides of the past have been accused of a mental fragility that has cost them games and subsequently knocked them out. By giving players the opportunity to take on the burden of responsibility and thrive under those pressures in a competitive tournament environment from an early age, players will have experiences to draw on that will help them progress into senior football in the future.
You need only look at the players who played in the previous under-21 tournaments, such as Paul Pogba, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Lucas Digne from 2013 under-20 World Cup winners France [all of whom have gone on to secure permanent places in the senior set-up] or the 8 players from Spain’s 2011 European Championships squad [including the likes of Juan Mata, David De Gea and Thiago Alcantara] who have done the same, to see that the transition between youth and senior international football can be eased by exposing players these situations during their formative years.
3. Know your role and shut your mouth
An additional problem is players coming into the senior side frequently have to play out of their preferred position to fill in holes or accommodate more established players if they want game time. While being involved with the senior set-up undoubtedly has its plus sides it’s going to be far more beneficial for Harry Kane to play games in his natural position rather than perhaps coming on to play as a wide forward for 15 minutes to close a game down as the likes of Welbeck and Sturridge have had to in their fledgling international careers. Young players clearly need to time to transition into a new side but there seems little point in doing this if we are not using players in ways they are going to be used long term. I’d rather see Kane and co. learn the ropes in their natural positions.
4.Consistency is the key
An additional problem is that we tend to move players from youth to senior international football as individuals rather than collectively. Clearly not every player playing for the under-21s is going to progress to play for the senior side. For those who will though, we should endeavour to make sure that they play as much football together as they can in order to develop an understanding of each other’s game. One of the fundamental flaws on English football right now is the lack of a coherent tactical approach and footballing identity. This means that the progression through the youth ranks is disjointed rather than seamless. Nations such as Spain, Germany and Uruguay [as well as club sides like Southampton] have identified a shape and tactical approach to the game at the very top that they want to adopt. As such, they can prepare their youth sides for the future of first team football by implementing the tactical and footballing identity at every youth level. This obviously makes the transition between age groups far easier on players: they are familiar with their role and responsibilities and only have to adjust to the games of their team-mates as well as the different physical and mental demands of adult football.
Due to the incoherence of English football, this isn’t possible so we should strive for the next best thing: consistency of personnel. If we can’t have our youth teams playing the same brand of football as the senior team, we should at least be encouraging them to develop as a collective unit. We have seen hints of it with the burgeoning partnership of Berahino and Kane, as well as with the supply line from Nathan Redmond, Will Hughes and James Ward-Prowse. If we truly see these players as the future of the national team, we should be getting them to play together as much as possible. If there is an existing understanding created between these players as a collective unit at this level of football then the benefits will be reaped when they all progress into the senior side and help to make the national team exactly that, rather than a haphazardly collected set of individuals. You need only at Germany’s 2014 World Cup final squad which contained 6 members of their 2009 under-21 European Championship squad to see the benefits that can be gained from players developing together fostering mutual understanding.
There is no question that Harry Kane has the talent or the temperament to become an integral part of the England team for years to come. But there is no need to rush. Let’s trust the system we have in place and let players learn to keep themselves afloat before throwing them into the deep end.