Gareth Southgate will look to balance England’s pursuit of progress with player wellbeing against Iceland – but the fact Wednesday’s match is a dead rubber will not change his approach.
A year that was supposed to peak with a shot at winning the European Championship on home soil has ended with the Three Lions’ entire calendar being played behind closed doors and squeezed into the autumn.
England complete their strange, truncated run of eight fixtures against Iceland on Wednesday evening knowing that the Nations League finals are already beyond them and that the visitors have long since been relegated.
But Southgate has challenged his players to use this match as a chance to cement their place in his thoughts as the Three Lions look to build towards the rearranged Euros.
“I think we will be approaching the game in exactly the same way,” the Three Lions boss told talkSPORT. “Every game with England is important.
“We have got a squad of players that we’ve got different options in different areas of the pitch, but we have to look at the tactical problem the opposition poses and the players that we want to have a look at. But I don’t think we’ll approach it any differently.”
Southgate’s words are unlikely to be music to the ears of club managers following last week’s 3-0 friendly win against the Republic of Ireland and Sunday’s battling 2-0 Nations League loss to top-ranked Belgium.
Injuries have racked up during a triple-header placed in a frantic club schedule, with the initial 29-man selection now down at 22 players – a number that could be reduced further depending on Ben Chilwell’s back spasms.
Southgate has spoken about the wider missed opportunity to look after players in the rejigged coronavirus-shaped calendar, meaning he has to balance England’s needs with the protection of his group.
“We have tried to manage that as well as we can, give the players who were in Europe some extra recovery time, manage their training load, manage the two friendlies,” he said.
“But from then on we have to build our team and pick our strongest team that is available to us at any given time.
“We don’t know who we might have available in March. This could be the last time we see some of our players before the summer so we have got to maximise the time we have as well.”
Southgate believes England have “as good a relationship as we possibly can with all of the clubs” but knows players “are in a really difficult situation” heading into this match given the demands to be fit for the festive fixtures.
“They are under huge pressure from their clubs,” he added. “That is going on in the background, for sure.
“That is the landscape whether it is made public or not. That is the reality. It manifests itself in different ways but that is what happens.
“But they want to play for England – they all want to play for England. They want to get as many caps as they can. They want to do well as a team. They are mates. Having played for my country, I understand that. But I also have huge empathy with the club managers.
“We do not just have two clubs in the title race any more or three clubs – we are looking at six or seven clubs in England and there is huge pressure on every result.
“Everybody is looking to try and gain an advantage and if they feel someone else is getting an advantage, they want to make sure their voice is heard as well.
“So there is all of that noise in the background but we’ve got to remember that we are competing against France, who pick all their players, Spain, who pick all their players, Portugal, who pick all their players.
“So I think we’ve tried to be as understanding as we can around training, recovery and the friendlies in particular, but we also have to make the most of the games we have got.”
Southgate rebuffed the idea of using the game against Iceland to experiment for future matches.
“The expectation here is to try to win,” he said. “More than anything the players don’t want to let each other down.
“Whenever you’re representing any group, there’s the shirt, and there’s the badge, but then there’s the people alongside you. You want to be strong for them, and I think that’s what we’ve got.”
“There’ll be lots of areas where we’re competing against the flow, but we’ve got to make sure the bits that we can control we are firm on, and fair across the board.
“There were questions about September because clubs had just finished European football, and we were fair across the board I think, and we understand unfortunately of course that’s going to put us on a collision course at certain times.
“But I also know all of those managers in the league would do exactly the same if they were in our position, so I think there’s respect. I understand their world and I think they understand ours as well.”