Gareth Southgate has backtracked on a bold statement he made soon after he was appointed permanent England manager, as he prepares to field Harry Maguire against Italy.
The out-of-favour Manchester United man is in line to start for England against the Azzurri in Milan on Friday evening. Twelve months ago that in itself would not have warranted any column inches, but Maguire’s lack of club-level action has made it an interesting sidebar.
New United boss Erik ten Hag has dropped the centre-back to the bench after losing the first two matches of the season.
Maguire’s only start since then came in the Europa League loss to Real Sociedad with Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane United’s two go to central defenders.
That has led Southgate into a conundrum, with Maguire one of the first names on the team sheet over the last few years. In fact he was a key member of the World Cup squad despite missing the first two games due to injury.
But his inactivity at Old Trafford has left a question mark over his international place. But a number of sources, including The Atheltic’s David Ornstein suggest that Maguire will start at the San Siro.
Southgate has labelled Maguire’s lack of game time is “not an ideal situation” but the world’s most expensive defender retains the England manager’s backing and belief.
If Maguire does start then Southgate will have made a hug U-turn on the stance we went public with soon after taking over as England boss.
‘I never pick on reputation’
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph in February 2017, Southgate warned that he will not select players based on what they had achieved in the past.
“I never pick on reputation — form has to come into it,” Southgate said. “You have to look at the opposition and the type of game you’re expecting and select the players best suited to that.”
With those thoughts in mind it’s hard to see how Maguire would get the nod against Italy.
Still, Southgate has now justified the situation and likened it to a scenario that England rugby coach Eddie Jones managed.
Reigning Gallagher Premiership champions Saracens were relegated at the end of the 2019-20 season following salary-cap breaches, meaning a number of key international players had to ply their trade in the second tier.
“I’ve just been reading Eddie Jones’ book and he had a similar situation with the Saracens players,” Southgate said.
“Even on reflection, he felt they were his best players and although they were undercooked. They were still going to be better than players that weren’t at the level.
“So I don’t think there are many players that aren’t here now that are at the level yet to go in and play.
“Look, clearly, it’s not an ideal situation. You want your best players playing regularly so that they’re physically in a good place and mentally in a good place.
Maguire an ‘important player’
“But he is an important player for us. I think it’s important to back our best players.
“The squad we’ve picked, there are a fair number of players you could argue we could have left out at this point but I think we wanted to keep that group together and to keep them involved, keep them feeling part of it.
“But also they know that, for some of them, that they need to be playing more regularly because now we’re only a few weeks on from pre-season so physically if they’ve had a few 90 minutes then that’s fine.
“Another seven, eight weeks, then that does start to become more complicated.”
Asked if he has spoken to Maguire about the current dilemma, Southgate said: “I haven’t felt the need to speak to him any differently to the rest of the players.
“I try and pick up individually with them all, that’s been a bit more complicated this time because we’ve got 28 so I’m getting there!
“Look, he understands that he’s at a big club, big transfer fee and captain of the club so I think that’s why the spotlight has been on him more.
“But he is focused on training well every day and getting himself back in the team.”
Tower of strength for England
In Southgate’s defence, Maguire has been a pillar of consistency for England. And all his 46 caps have come under the former Middlesbrough boss.
“I think, look, you always have to back your judgement and we feel he is an important player,” Southgate said ahead of the Nations League match.
“If we thought there were experienced players ready to step in and play at a level above him there would be a different consideration and in some positions there would be a different level of competition in that way.
“He is our most dominant aerial centre-back. Him and John (Stones) are incredible with the ball really. The amount of pressure they have taken for the team in tournaments we have played because we don’t always have that midfield pivot player who can progress the game.
“It means there is a huge amount more pressure on our centre-backs to use the ball well. And those two are as good as any in world football at doing that.”
READ MORE: Maguire told how to break Varane-Martinez partnership, as ex-Man Utd star fires Ten Hag warning
Steve Pearson 11 hours ago
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