A few days on from England’s defeat to Germany and positivity continues to surround Project Southgate. The result was not what the manager wanted in his first game in full-time charge but the performance was undeniably encouraging. There was poise and panache from those in blue, with the only ingredient lacking – albeit, a key one – a ruthlessness in front of goal.
It would be unwise to get too carried away – this is England after all and Germany were uncharacteristically poor until Lukas Podolski scored with a rocket of a shot in his farewell game for the world champions. Nevertheless before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania at Wembley, there is cause for quiet optimism about a team that includes figures of recent, crushing failure – six of the players who started in Dortmund also did so against Iceland in Nice nine months ago – but looks somewhat refreshed.
Partly that is because they lined up in a 3-5-2 formation and actually looked as if they knew what they were doing – something that could last be said about an England team two decades ago, during the days of Glenn Hoddle and France 98 – and partly because of the relatively young, somewhat-new nature of the side Southgate deployed against Germany.
The average age of the starting XI was 26.5, with only two players, Gary Cahill and Jamie Vardy, in their 30s. There was a 20-year-old in Dele Alli, who shone in a combined No10 role alongside Adam Lallana, and a debutant, 24-year-old Michael Keane, who also impressed. Two other players, James Ward-Prowse (22) and Nathan Redmond (23), also did themselves no harm on their debuts, coming on in the second half and either side of Marcus Rashford, who at the age of 19 continues to look a star in the making. And on Friday the Middlesbrough centre-back Ben Gibson was called up for the injured Chris Smalling, with the 24-year-old in line to become yet another England debutant given Gary Cahill is suspended.
It is all enough to make Joe Hart feel a little past it. At 29 he is the second-oldest player remaining in Southgate’s squad, after Jermain Defoe, and with 69 caps the most experienced. The goalkeeper now has seniority, having not so long ago been among the next bright young things of English football.
Not that he necessarily sees it that way. Asked whether the likes of Keane, Ward-Prowse and Redmond had sought him out for advice upon their inclusion in the national team setup, Hart said they had not, nor was he the type of person who would impose himself on new recruits. Instead, he insisted, the job of making new players feel welcome was a collective one.
“Whether I’ve been new, old or indifferent I appreciate coming into a squad is difficult and the environment we try to create together is a positive one,” said Hart. “You don’t want any awkwardness, especially with the fact that away from tournament football you’re together for such a short amount of time. You’re going to need these people to feel calm.”
There certainly seemed to be a strong sense of togetherness and calm within England’s ranks on Wednesday and for Hart it was another occasion when he was able to remind the watching world of his talents, most notably with a terrific low save on 73 minutes to keep out Leroy Sané’s firmly hit drive.
Sané and Hart would have been team-mates this season had the latter not felt he had no choice but to leave Manchester City following the arrival of Claudio Bravo and his demotion to the substitutes’ bench at a club he helped to win two Premier League titles. The player moved to Torino on a season-long loan at the end of August and has made 28 appearances for a side who sit 10th in Serie A.
There have only been five clean sheets but Hart insists he is enjoying the experience. More importantly, he feels it has enhanced him as a person and a player. “I have enjoyed being part of a great football club, a great city, meeting new people,” he said. “Our form has not been great but we are going to keep battling and make the most out of the season. I’d like to think I’ve improved [as a goalkeeper], but that’s because I want to improve all the time. Ultimately I just want to get as much out of my career as I can.”
Hart recently described himself as “surplus to requirements” at City but following Bravo’s woeful start to life in Manchester and Willy Caballero continuing to look nothing more than a back-up option, the player could be forgiven for believing that he still has a future at the club he has served since 2006, especially if Pep Guardiola was among those who saw him perform against Germany.
“I loved being part of Manchester City and while they wanted me, there was nowhere else to look,” he said. “But things have changed a little bit and I want to be part of the best team I can be part of, that wants me to be their keeper.
“I’ve enjoyed being part of Serie A; it’s a strong league. I will obviously keep an eye on Manchester City – they are my parent club and one I have a lot of affection for, and whatever happens in the summer, whoever’s jersey I will be putting on next season, is where all my energy will lie.”
For now Hart’s focus is squarely on England and helping maintain their steady path towards qualification for Russia 2018 with victory over Lithuania, who have won only one of their four qualifying matches so far – against the Group F whipping boys Malta last October – and sit fourth, three places and five points behind England.
In light of Cahill’s absence, alongside those of Wayne Rooney and Jordan Henderson, Hart will captain his country. It is a role he has carried out before and one he was keen to downplay on the eve of a game in which he will become only the 26th man to earn 70 caps for England, but the honour is fitting for a player of his standing within an increasingly callow squad, and who despite the setbacks insists he remains optimistic about the national team’s prospects as they crank up their competitive gears under their latest full-time manager.
“The past matters and we understand where people’s [lack of] optimism outside of our environment comes from, because we’re realistic,” he said. “I’ve played in it, the new lads have seen it happen, but we’re always going to have that dream, that belief that we’re going to put all our good work to good use. Unfortunately when it matters, it’s not been there. We need to make it matter.”