England manager Gareth Southgate has kept alive the prospect of Sunderland’s Jermain Defoe being a part of the World Cup squad in Russia next summer, declaring after his excellent return to international football that he will select of form and operate a meritocracy.
Defoe’s breakthrough goal against Lithuania - his first for England for exactly four years - capped an excellent all-round display, and Southgate said that even relegation to the Championship for the player's club side would not preclude his selection for Russia. The player will be 35 in October.
“I think we've got to look every time we get together as to who is in form,” said Southgate, whose side went five points clear in Group F ahead of other qualifiers on Sunday night. “I don't know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful we have to have that competition for places.
“The reality is we will always lose players to injury. We're never able to pick a full cohort, so it's important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact he does like he did today. If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there's no reason why he wouldn't be. I would have put my house on him scoring at some stage today. He's had a really positive impact on everybody.”
Southgate said “that the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level” – meaning the Premier League. But Defoe hinted when recalled to the England squad that if his club was relegated he would leave Wearside rather than jeopardise his chances of going to Russia. His move from Tottenham to Toronto ruined his hopes of a place in England’s 2014 World Cup squad - something he deeply regretted.
Southgate removed Defoe for Jamie Vardy on the hour mark, part of a double substitution which also saw Marcus Rashford replace Raheem Sterling, who complained of a “tight back” before the game and at half time.
The decision stemmed from the manager’s feeling that the team had not got in behind the Lithuania defence enough. “I felt we had Marcus and Jamie who might threaten behind a bit more. Raheem likes receiving to feet. So that was the decision I took.
“Going forward we need to ensure we are moving the ball a bit quicker and making more runs in behind. We have individual players who will play better than they did today. There are times when you know you're going to win the game and perhaps don't reach the levels like we perhaps did against Germany. "We had two very young centre backs which is a real bonus. It's in our hands because the next two teams have got to come here. We know going to Scotland will be difficult and Lithuania on the plastic will be a different test.
"We had moments where we kept pushing. It wasn't that we took out foot off the gas in the last 20 minutes, we were in total control of the game but just couldn't find that third goal.”
Liverpool’s Adam Lallana arguably made an even greater contribution than Defoe in what was an unspectacular win against an unambitious Lithuania team.
“Adam injects something,” Southgate said. “He created a really good opening just before the first goal. The game in tight areas is where his quick feet and quick brain stand out. There weren't so many opportunities for us to turn the ball over high up the pitch, but he starts that press off. I'm really impressed with his mentality and quality.”