Gareth Southgate does not mind being given a selection headache by the emergence of fresh talent into the England squad.
Southgate’s side host Croatia at Wembley on Sunday with a place in the inaugural Nations League Finals up for grabs, while the losing team will be relegated from League A.
Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier both started the World Cup semi-final between the sides in July, the latter opening the scoring with a wonderful free-kick, but the defensive duo missed out on Southgate’s squad through injury.
The England manager has a full complement of 25 players to choose from, though, with Trent Alexander-Arnold, Harry Winks and Jadon Sancho among the young players to make a case for selection with lively performances in Thursday’s friendly warm-up win against United States.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to pick a squad, a team, and that’s a good sign,” Southgate told a news conference.
“Because there’s a competition for places, young players have emerged since the summer and even with missing players like Trippier and Maguire, young players have come through and done well in those positions. The only way to drive performances is with competition for places.
“We have learned with every experience that we’ve had. We’ve added more depth to the squad in terms of young players and competition for places. We’ve had a slight change of system which has made us more flexible in the way we play.
“We’re always improving and I think in those five matches that you’ve seen since the summer, we haven’t sat on our laurels. We want to keep improving and I think the players have shown that mentality.”
Loved that @JesseLingard strike on Thursday night
— Harry Kane (@HKane) November 17, 2018
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is without one of his key players as Ivan Rakitic sustained a hamstring injury in their dramatic 3-2 home victory over pool leaders Spain on Thursday.
“He’s a top player with brilliant experience, but they have very good replacements,” Southgate said of the Barcelona star. “Their midfield is very strong and we have to play very well to create against them, playing without the ball with really good detail to limit what they can do.
“We’ve talked already about midfield options, they have strong attacking wingers, they have lots of strengths. We have to be prepared to defend really well as a team. But as with any team there are areas you want to exploit.
“We’ve some really good attacking players who are in form and looking forward to it. I’m really excited, I think it’ll be a good game to watch. They have outstanding athletes, a resilient mentality, we know the pride they have, we’ve seen first-hand and we saw the other night against Spain, with the celebrations. But we are also proud.
“I think that both teams tactically are always well prepared and both teams have a brilliant opportunity to get to a semi-final. Both countries will be looking to win the game. You have to get every part of your game right. There are very good players on show and a full house, a very good game to be involved in.
“Obviously we’ve played twice in the last few months, know their style of play, preference and areas they build up, areas we think we can exploit. It’s two evenly matched teams, both games after 90 minutes have been draws and both teams have had the upper hand in periods.”
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