By Reece Chambers
After a week of International friendlies, many football fans will be eager to get back to watching their local clubs. From the Premier League to League Two, club football is much more popular than the International game. But, as the latest International fixtures proved, it must be appreciated that they are of much more importance than some fans realise.
Indeed, International friendlies can provide rather laborious watching at times. England, for example, drew 0-0 in both of their recent friendlies with Germany and Brazil. It is certainly no secret that International friendlies do not provide the thrill and excitement of the Premier League. It’s hard to exactly pinpoint why the fixtures are limited in action. Whether it is players preventing injury or just a lack of passion, friendlies will never live up to the hype of club football.
However, friendlies are not meant to entertain like club football. Instead, they are used as experimentations of new players, new formations and a chance to improve as a team. You only have to look as far as Wales and England to see that the latest set of friendlies were used as a trialling system for new and emerging talent.
True, travelling over 400 miles from Cardiff to Paris to watch a 2-0 defeat to France wasn’t on the top of most Welsh fans’ list. Nevertheless, the match showed that Wales, despite much pressure, could compete with one of the world’s best teams. With both a weakened side and multiple young players, Chris Coleman would have learnt a lot about his side in defeat. Yet again, proving the value of friendly matches.
Wales’ home fixture against Panama probably wasn’t the most engaging encounter on paper, but it did at least give Chris Coleman the time to experiment with younger players. The likes of Ethan Ampadu, David Brooks and Ben Woodburn, with an average age of just over 18, all featured during Wales’ two friendly matches. With first team players such as Gareth Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu ruled out through injury, it was the perfect time for the youngsters to showcase their talent.
Most notably, David Brooks of Sheffield United impressed with a man of the match performance versus Panama. In a team that showed an array of young talent, Brooks was the shining light with some impressive dribbling on the right of midfield. Without friendlies, Brooks’ opportunities in the Welsh side would have been scarce. Therefore, showing that in order to promote young talent, friendlies are the only way forward.
Just across the bridge, International friendlies proved of even more worth for Gareth Southgate’s England. With a World Cup on the horizon, Southgate faces many selection issues and so a time of experimentation was important for his new England side.
Injuries to first team players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Adam Lallana meant that both of England’s starting line ups versus Germany and Brazil were different to usual. Impressive debuts from Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Joe Gomez, though, suggests that injuries to other players may have been a blessing in disguise.
Moreover, it not only provided different players with an opportunity to prove their value. But, also, allowed Southgate to trial different formations and styles of play. Versus Germany, Ruben Loftus-Cheek provided food for thought with a commanding game as an attacking midfielder. With the shackles of competitive football taken off his shoulders, he was able to fully express his creativity and ambition – something that would not have been possible without friendly matches.
The extent to which Loftus-Cheek impressed may have been overstated by Chris Sutton on BBC 5 Live in saying that the Englishman is better than Cesc Fabregas. However, it must be realised that in order to breed young talent into the first team, nations must take full opportunity of friendly matches.
Yes, they can be arduous viewing at times. But, be patient. Talent can not be fully developed overnight. Instead, International friendlies must be used in order to provide both Wales and England with a chance to nurture their young and promising talent into fully-fledged International players.