16 Conclusions on an England World Cup squad that proves even Gareth Southgate isn’t immune to The Clamour

James Maddison winning his first and so far only England cap under Gareth Southgate in 2019 Credit: Alamy
James Maddison winning his first and so far only England cap under Gareth Southgate in 2019 Credit: Alamy

James Maddison is in, Callum Wilson is in, a whole bunch of fringe centre-backs are out. It’s a less conservative Gareth Southgate squad than might have been expected, with the England manager almost always opting for the more aggressive and progressive option in the few genuine 50-50 calls he had to make…

 

1. We’ll start by saying that it is a very good England squad and there is very little Gareth Southgate could have done with available players to make it any better. It is a squad unlikely to match the semi-final or final reached in the last two tournaments, but there is no squad available to Southgate that is likely to do that.

If all goes as well as it possibly can, this lot will probably have to play France in the last eight. And at that stage they will probably lose. But that was true yesterday, and the day before and the day before. And so forth. And Southgate has picked a squad capable of defying those predictions and there is precious little to quibble with.

At squad selection time, barring something truly astonishing, you’re talking about things going on around the edges and fringes of the squad. We can argue about this inclusion or that exclusion but really it doesn’t make a great deal of difference.

Right, with that out of the way, let’s crack on with 15 other conclusions arguing about this inclusion or that exclusion.

 

2. James Maddison is the obvious standout name in the 26, his form for Leicester well established over an extended period of time in the end making him impossible for even Southgate to leave out despite his obvious reservations. Not even Southgate is immune to the biennial English major tournament tradition of The Clamour in which a player with one cap from three years ago becomes suddenly and indisputably The Answer for every columnist and pundit.

We strongly suspect Maddison is a major beneficiary of the move to 26-man squads, a move that allows Southgate to loosen his tie a little and take a punt on a maverick whose infamous casino visit in 2019 appeared to have left a permanent blot on the old copybook.

Southgate is a pragmatist at heart, and above all else no fool. And Maddison’s numbers are compelling. His 13 goals and nine assists in 2022 makes 22 goal involvements – a total bettered in the Premier League by only Harry Kane, Kevin De Bruyne and Son Heung-min – and he has them in a Leicester team that has spent a lot of that time struggling really rather badly.

 

3. The argument against Maddison – and it was one in truth we expected to be making here today – is that The Clamour for a player with one cap three years ago was all a bit too much for an England squad that isn’t really short of creative attacking options. But the counterpoint to that is obvious. Kane is the only more effective English attacker.

And Maddison does offer a point of difference to those other creator creatives who flit around Kane in the England team. He is the purest number 10 among those options and offers the best option if England go for a one up, one just behind formation at any point in a game, either from the start or following a mid-match reshuffle.

 

4. The Clamour is only just beginning, though, so we must all brace ourselves for that reality. Maddison’s likely absence from the squad was always the easiest weapon in the pundit’s arsenal but that would have faded away by the time the actual tournament is under way.

Now every drab and uninspired first-half performance will result in a half-time spent entirely pointing out that Maddison could offer something that England’s starting XI hasn’t. Unless we’re really lucky and the game was on ITV, in which case a good five or six minutes of that half-time will instead be taken up with the John Lewis Christmas ad.

 

5. Marcus Rashford is another major recall for a manager who still likes his familiar faces. Rashford’s last on-field contribution for England was missing a penalty in the Euros final shootout, but from the moment he recovered focus and form for Manchester United a World Cup spot was always on the cards.

Again, he offers a package that nobody else can quite match. Tournament experience, versatility, the ability to play from the left or through the middle and, bluntly, goals. He’s the third highest goalscorer of the Gareth Southgate era and along with Raheem Sterling offers the best foil for Kane’s fondness for dropping deep and picking out passes for runners in behind.

 

6. One of the most hotly contested yet ultimately insignificant positions in the squad is as Harry Kane’s plus one. There is zero prospect, clearly, of anyone usurping Kane as first choice and with all due respect to all those vying for the back-up role, if they have to play a significant role in Qatar then England are already in the sort of bother that it’s unlikely would have been solved by any of the other contenders being there instead. Tammy Abraham’s loss of form in a position where it matters more than anywhere else was badly timed, while Ivan Toney doesn’t seem to have impressed Southgate when called up to the squad in September.

The absence of either and both is neither scandal nor disgrace. Nor would their inclusion ahead of Callum Wilson have been. But for what it’s worth we think Southgate has got it right. Wilson leads the line with a touch greater authority than his rivals and offers an intelligence of movement when fit and firing (as he currently assuredly is) that has always looked well suited to international football. He can take penalties as well, which never does anyone any harm when the prospect of 119 minutes on the clock and that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach looms as large as ever for all England followers.

He’s still a huge and probably catastrophic downgrade on Kane if needed for more than a few minutes here or there, but that was an outcome it was never in Southgate’s gift to avoid. What Southgate has certainly and shrewdly done over the last year or two is hand a chance to every single one of the possible Plus Ones inside the Premier League and out. No arguments here with the choice he has made, and nobody can argue they didn’t get a chance.

England striker Callum Wilson celebrates his goal Credit: Alamy
England striker Callum Wilson celebrates his goal Credit: Alamy

7. The most obvious hole in England’s 26 is at left-(wing-) back where only one specialist option exists in Luke Shaw and the possible fill-ins are all, for assorted reasons, vexing. But again, and this is becoming a repetitive refrain, we’re not really sure what Southgate could have done differently here and he may well have chosen the least bad path available. Ben Chilwell is ruled out through injury and that’s that. Tyrick Mitchell or Ryan Sessegnon could have been included, but it’s pretty hard to argue either has really done enough to merit being thrown into tournament action, or would provide any greater security than the in-squad alternatives while also taking up a squad place that is now being used for someone offering more versatility.

But it’s undoubtedly a concern. The absence of Reece James compounds the problem because not only is he excellent in his own right it means the likeliest first-reserve option to fill in at left-wing-back – Kieran Trippier – will now be Southgate’s undoubted first-choice on the other flank. Bukayo Saka is a wonderful footballer and one for whom we have a great deal of affection, but his performance at left wing-back against Italy in the last international break was an atrocity we don’t care to see repeated.

If Shaw, whose career has seen its fair share of injury setbacks, should be unavailable for any reason, then the likelihood is that Southgate will be forced into changes on both flanks of his defence.

 

8. There’s a curiosity to England’s centre-back options and it is perhaps the one area of the squad where it is possible to have a reasonable doubt about Southgate’s direction despite once again accepting much of it has been due to events outside his control.

Harry Maguire has started one league game since August. Ben White and John Stones have been playing at right-back. Conor Coady has been playing for Everton. Kyle Walker has been out of action with injury and at the very least will be unavailable for England’s opening game. And the form that earned Eric Dier his recall ahead of the last international break has now seemingly once again deserted him.

Yet this was also one area where options really did exist. Marc Guehi perhaps has most cause to wonder what precisely he’s done wrong having featured in every Southgate squad this year and remained a reliable and consistent fixture at the heart of defence in an enterprising Crystal Palace side. But Fikayo Tomori, Joe Gomez and Tyrone Mings will all also look at the centre-back options Southgate has gone with and feel a bit unlucky.

 

9. This is also an area of the squad where Southgate’s simple numbers are surprising – especially with only one left-back in the squad. Whether it be Guehi, Gomez, Tomori (whose struggles against Chelsea in the Champions League appear to have carried a great deal of weight) or anyone else, we would have expected one more body among the list of centre-backs given the form and fitness doubts of those who are there.

 

10. Ben White’s selection feels like it had long been more of a certainty than it might otherwise have looked from the make-up of recent England get-togethers. If you’re going to be a centre-back in Gareth Southgate’s thoughts but playing out of position for your club then make that position right-back and make the club the best team in the country on current form.

White’s versatility won’t do him any harm and while no like-for-like Walker replacement he does look the best available option in that squad for the hybrid nature of the right centre-back role in a Southgate back three.

But he doesn’t offer Walker’s pace, and if the Manchester City man is unable to recover as everyone hopes then Tomori’s speed may well be missed.

 

11. Southgate citing Tammy Abraham’s poor form as a reason for leaving him out while continuing to select Harry Maguire may seem contradictory but, really, a direct comparison isn’t particularly fair here.

It’s apples and oranges: Maguire is a long-established member of Southgate’s first-choice starting XI all things being equal, and Tammy Abraham is a back-up striker who even at his very best doesn’t notably stand above other assorted back-up striker options.

You can absolutely believe that Maguire’s form means he shouldn’t be there – although you’d have to be pretty daft not to have known it was utterly inevitable that he would be – there really is no inconsistency in a manager using different methodology to select established players and those on the fringes.

Indeed, such flexibility is not only understandable and desirable but absolutely necessary. Otherwise, squads would either never change enough and grow stale or always change too much and lack any cohesion. It’s also the precise sort of flexibility Southgate has so often been accused of lacking.

 

12. Southgate has also been surprisingly bold in most of the ticklish “either/or” selections he had to make. While often considered an instinctively conservative (with a small c) kind of coach and manager he has on this occasion generally opted for the bolder option when faced with a genuine decision.

This is most obviously true with Maddison, but also less eye-catching but perhaps more significantly in the choice of Conor Gallagher over James Ward-Prowse and also the in-form familiar face of Gallagher’s Chelsea team-mate Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Gallagher is undoubtedly a more exciting all-round midfield option than Ward-Prowse, whose own form for a struggling Southampton has not advanced his case while the emergence of Trippier as a pretty definite starter on one side of the defence or the other – as well as Maddison’s presence – renders Ward-Prowse’s set-piece mastery rather less of a selling point than might otherwise have been the case.

 

13. Let’s look at the two injury gambles. Manchester City pair Walker and Kalvin Phillips have both been deemed worth the risk and, with the expanded 26 places available, we say fair enough. Both have been so integral to Southgate’s preferred method – you can see why he wants them around. Walker is really the only player who can do what he does in that RCB position even if it isn’t always perfect. His pace is a vital part of England’s defensive armoury and in his absence they have to do things differently; it arguably hits at the heart of the viability of the three-man defence altogether despite the number of centre-backs with right-back experience – White, Stones, even Dier – available in the squad.

Phillips is more easily replaced within the squad and the continued emergence of Jude Bellingham as a Proper Midfielder who is already delivering on all the obvious potential we’ve known about for a while also helps. That Southgate has nevertheless decided to go with Phillips speaks of how highly he rates the work he gets through in England’s midfield and his Euro 2020 performances make that understandable.

 

14. There is also a silver lining to picking a couple of players who come in to the tournament under an injury cloud. England won’t be alone in this regard, but they are obviously going to be a weary squad for this uniquely challenging World Cup.

Sixteen members of the squad feature in this list of the season’s busiest players. Having a couple of key players fresher for their injury-enforced absence from the hurly-burly of Premier and Champions League action might not be such a bad thing.

 

15. That fatigue is a factor Southgate must manage. While it was a push for Antonio Conte’s statement of the obvious that Harry Kane is “really tired” to be described as a “shock admission” it doesn’t mean it’s not important.

For obvious reasons, both club and country deem Kane an absolute necessity in pretty much every game that matters but the hour he spent stumbling around the City Ground seemingly in a daze on Wednesday night should act as a reminder that everyone has a limit. Kane is only the most obvious example of a player “in the red” before the tournament has even begun and it may mean that more selection risks than normal may have to be taken in the earlier games even if it raises the prospect of a more uncomfortable group stage than might have been desirable.

Kane is irreplaceable, but you do just wonder whether his extreme workload was another secondary factor in Southgate’s seemingly out-of-character decision to pack the squad with more attacking options than defensive ones.

 

16. So it was 21 out of 26 for the England Ladder in the end, and we’ll not be taking any criticism for having Reece James and Ben Chilwell in our 26 at that point. And we did say Ben White was well placed to benefit if there were injuries ahead of him. Nobody expected Maddison as recently as this morning, so we’re not beating ourselves up there either. Gallagher over Ward-Prowse is the only other one that really surprised us. In a good way.

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