Gareth Southgate challenged England’s players to “cement” their place in his European Championship thoughts as he braces himself for pressure from club managers about game-time in the Nations League dead rubber against Iceland.
A strange, testing and truncated international year comes to a conclusion with Wednesday’s Wembley clash between sides that already known their fate.
Iceland’s relegation from the top tier was confirmed last month, while Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Belgium ended England’s hopes of reaching the Nations League finals and bettering their third-place finish in the inaugural edition.
Given the circumstances surrounding the final match of the November triple-header and ongoing stresses of an unrelenting calendar, Southgate expects club managers to be twitchy about the use of their players on Wednesday.
But with time running out to earn a place in the squad for next summer’s rearranged Euros, this is one of the last occasions to experiment and impress.
“In terms of Iceland, it’s still a game that gives opportunities for people to cement a place in the team or in the squad,” Southgate said.
“Again, we’ll find out a lot now because for sure there’ll be a lot of pressure from some clubs on their own players. That’s what we live with consistently.
“But we’ve got players that want to play for England and we have pride in the way we play and we want to finish the game well.
“Our performance (against Belgium) was excellent and the players pushed until the 93rd minute and I couldn’t have been prouder of them doing that.
“So, we have players that want the opportunity to play. We’ll need to freshen the team a little bit but we’ll have to assess that over the next couple of days.”
Southgate named an initial 29-man squad for this month’s triple-header but, even with 17-year-old Jude Bellingham promoted to the group, the England manager could be down to 21 players against Iceland.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, James Ward-Prowse and Marcus Rashford were unable to meet up due to existing issues, while Joe Gomez sustained a knee injury in training ahead of the friendly win against the Republic of Ireland.
Conor Coady had to pull out after a Track and Trace alert about possible Covid-19 exposure and Raheem Sterling has a calf complaint, with Jordan Henderson and Ben Chilwell coming off with knocks against Belgium.
Sterling and Henderson will definitely miss Wednesday’s Wembley encounter, having returned to their respective clubs.
Harry Maguire is available after suspension but Reece James remains banned for Iceland’s visit, continuing an absentee-heavy theme that Southgate has had to deal with this in this year’s international meet-ups.
“It’s obvious throughout the autumn we’ve been missing so many players in every camp,” the England manager said.
“But I’m focused on the players that were here because the players that were here gave absolutely everything and there were some excellent individual performances.
“We’ve had 11 debuts, I think, across the autumn and a lot of players who’ve forced their way into our thinking for a squad and a lot of players who are forcing our thinking into the team.”
Wing-backs James, Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have impressed since making their senior debuts, while Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Coady and Kalvin Phillips have made strong cases this autumn.
Such an honour to make my first competitive start for @England last night! I’ve dreamt of this moment since I was a kid and I absolutely loved every single minute of it. I felt we deserved more from the game but time to kick on and to end the international break on a high! 🦁🏴 pic.twitter.com/rNM9LAYLjs
— Jack Grealish (@JackGrealish) November 16, 2020
With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc with the football calendar, Southgate admits he is in a “unique” position heading into March’s World Cup qualifying fixtures.
He revealed there has been no decisions made on who England will face in warm-up games for the Euros, but having World Cup qualifiers just three months before a major tournament presents different challenges.
“It’s a unique situation,” Southgate said when asked if he can fine-tune his squad for the Euros during a run of competitive games.
“We have been able to experiment a bit through these matches and that’s been invaluable because of the quality of the opposition.
“Of course with the World Cup qualifiers we have a duty to win the games but we always try to be progressive as well.”
With the truncated season packed full of fixtures, Southgate admits he cannot ask Premier League managers to rest his England stars with an eye on the Euros.
“I have got to be fair to the club managers,” he said.
“It’s their players, firstly, and they have the right to play them and use them as they see fit.
“It is a worry on the longer term because there’s no winter break and something has to give.
“I think we made four (substitutions against Belgium) and at the moment the clubs don’t have that option and what’s it going to take for that to change?
“There have been a couple of less serious injuries but what do we do? Wait until we get a load of really nasty ones? There has got to be a collective thinking about that.”