In a moment of reflection this week, Gareth Southgate took it on himself to ask a member of staff at the Football Association to contact Manchester United and explain that the England manager did not intend to come across in such a bruising manner when he left Chris Smalling out of the last squad because, as he put it at the time, he needed players at the back who were better on the ball.
Southgate did not think he had been misquoted but his verdict on Smalling’s ability was always going to generate headlines and, a week on, it was clear he wished it had turned out differently. Smalling, he said, was entitled to be “upset and disappointed” by the publicity it created. “If I had been Chris, I would have gone: ‘That’s a bit unfair.’”
Unfortunately for Smalling, the basic point remains the same. Southgate wants his team to build from the back and Smalling, however it is dressed up, is not exactly Beckenbauer-esque in his distribution. Yes, it could have been explained with a little more tact but if there is one thing we should know about Southgate from his 14 months in charge it is how ridiculous it was for anyone to assume he might be afraid – too nice, according to the popular theory – to make difficult decisions.
Smalling certainly cannot be the only one who feels slightly wounded this week now Southgate is planning to call up Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Demarai Gray and Dominic Solanke for the Brazil game on Tuesday, once they have played for the under-21s in Ukraine on Friday, and has kept out Daniel Sturridge, Jermain Defoe and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain even after the withdrawal of six players.
It is easy to see what is in Southgate’s thoughts given the way Germany, England’s opponents at Wembley on Friday, have successfully integrated younger players. Southgate is a huge admirer of that system, especially when his last job was as manager of England’s under-21s, and that helps to explain why Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Jordan Pickford go straight into his team to face the world champions.
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“If we don’t try things now, when will we?” he asked. “And it’s not just about Russia [next summer’s World Cup], it’s beyond that. Germany took a young team to the Confederations Cup. They are brave enough to take decisions which might get them results or might not. They are constantly evolving and that’s what we have to do.”
At the same time, England will have only four friendlies beyond the current international break before they play their first game of the World Cup and the time is surely approaching when Southgate ought to have a set team, with players who know each other’s games and are accustomed to working in the same system.
Perhaps that will be easier when the six Spurs players – now down to three because of the injury problems for Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Harry Winks – are all available whereas the only real theme for now is that Southgate is planning to operate with a three-man defence, using quick, attack-minded wing-backs, and hoping one or two of his younger players seize the initiative in the way Marcus Rashford did before Euro 2016.
That is not going to be easy for Loftus-Cheek bearing in mind he is playing for a Crystal Palace side rooted at the bottom of the Premier League. Yet the England midfield is clearly an issue and Danny Drinkwater’s reluctance to join up, after a personal call from the manager, has left a place available beside Jake Livermore of West Bromwich Albion.
Officially, Drinkwater does not feel fit enough to represent England after starting one game for Chelsea, with a further three substitute appearances, since returning from injury in late October. Yet it has also been rumoured for some time that he has not embraced international football and, though he has not put it in those terms to Southgate, it never looks good when a player who is fit, even if it not fully so, says no. Southgate was asked whether he would have done the same in his own playing career and expertly swerved the question. The truth, as everyone in his company knew, was that he would never have dreamt of turning down England.
Southgate didn't call up Wilshere due to 'fitness issues'— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) November 10, 2017
Minutes played this season:
Decent logic, there. pic.twitter.com/Oouh8B3ydf
Instead, that opportunity falls to Loftus-Cheek, a creative 20-year-old with a deceptive touch bearing in mind he has the physique of a rugby player. “He’s always been the biggest kid in the playground but he’s not a player who has survived on physical strength,” Southgate said. “He’s a different sort of player, at his best in behind the opposition midfield, driving at defences – great technical quality, dribbling ability, power. He’s a really exciting player. He’s quite a quiet lad so I’m hoping he gets a lift in confidence from how we see him.”
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What that does for Jack Wilshere’s confidence is another matter at a time when Southgate says he intends to speak to the Arsenal player in the coming weeks but does not appear to have anything particularly positive to say. Southgate said last week that he could not trust Wilshere because of the player’s recurring injury issues but in his latest press conference he also brought in the team’s tactics and, specifically, that Wilshere has been operating as a No10 in his sporadic appearances for Arsenal and previously on loan at Bournemouth. “I think he is a deeper player,” Southgate said, “but he is not playing deeper.” Everything put together, it sounded very much like Wilshere was a long way from being called back.
Slowly but surely, the Roy Hodgson team is being replaced by a new-look version, now with Abraham at the spearhead of the team’s attack, but Southgate insisted that Joe Hart was still his undisputed No1. Jack Butland has been in the thoughts of England’s management and his latest injury, breaking a finger, is another serious misfortune for the Stoke City goalkeeper, leaving the way open for Pickford to stake his own claims.
The tricky bit for Southgate would usually be making these changes while taking into account that England are facing the two sides at the top of Fifa’s world rankings but the dangers are reduced by Joachim Löw’s comments that he will be doing roughly the same with Germany.
Southgate has been undermined on that front by the absence of so many key players but there was no sense of him being suspicious about any of the cry-offs and, in keeping with a long line of England managers, he used the moment to call for new discussions about the possibility of a winter break. “The reality is that it is not something that is going to happen in the next couple of years,” he said.