Harry Kane will not start for England against Switzerland on Tuesday evening because, in the words of Gareth Southgate, he is one of “several players where we have to watch how much they play”. Precisely the same could be said of Marcus Rashford and Danny Welbeck, the other strikers in this England squad, if for entirely different reasons.
Already in this Premier League season, only four games old, Kane has played more than 2.5 times as much football as those two put together. Until Rashford completed the match against Spain at Wembley on Saturday night neither he nor Welbeck had played an entire 90 minutes this season. Indeed, in the last 12 months the England captain has played more full first-team matches than Rashford has in his entire career, or that Welbeck has in the five years since the start of September 2013. Though youth, in Rashford’s case, and injury, in Welbeck’s, go some way to explaining that statistic it nevertheless illustrates their current status and a case of feast and famine in which neither extreme, as Southgate tacitly admitted, is particularly healthy.
Other than Kane, none of the English forwards who are starting regularly in the Premier League – a short list that includes Theo Walcott at Everton, Brighton’s Glenn Murray, Troy Deeney and Andre Gray at Watford, Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson, Danny Ings, on loan from Liverpool to Southampton, and Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, who announced his international retirement last month while leaving the door open for a return if “the worst came to happen and everyone was injured” – are considered reasonable answers to any of the questions Southgate is currently asking.
“There aren’t many English strikers playing,” he said in Leicester preparing for the friendly against Switzerland. “There’s obviously some older ones who have good goalscoring records at club level but I’m not sure that’s necessarily the route we want to go. We’re hopeful that a couple of the younger ones will start to get games and develop. In this period we’re determined to invest in some of the younger guys.”
Welbeck, who turns 28 in November, is starting to strain that definition somewhat, but Southgate has to pick someone. Ings and Wilson are both 26 but when asked to look beyond his current options the England coach says he has “a lot of faith in Solanke in particular, who I think has been outstanding at every age level”.
Dominic Solanke will celebrate his 21st birthday on Friday having completed four first-team matches in England. Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin, like Solanke a member of the England squad that won the Under-20 World Cup in Korea last year, has considerably more first-team experience but did not get a mention and beyond that any further barrel-scraping is more likely to yield splinters than strikers.
“I can’t worry about the possibility of things that we might not have,” Southgate said. “I’ve got to develop the players that we have got and that’s coaching at international level. You have got to improve the individuals and improve the team and not be distracted by what you have and haven’t got. In a club world you can get the chequebook out. This environment is different.”
It is not an ideal situation, and Southgate is not the perfect coach, but it is hard to see anyone handling this particular predicament any better than the incumbent. We know from repeated reminders over many years what the alternative looks like, but for a refresher it is worth going back almost exactly eight years to the autumn of 2010. Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe were injured, leaving the then England manager, Fabio Capello, short of attacking options.
The Italian called up the 33-year-old Kevin Davies – “I had to sit down for five or 10 minutes and let it sink in,” the Bolton striker said, “and then it was like, ‘Is this a wind-up?’” – and then for his next game he plucked Jay Bothroyd, who at the age of 28 was playing for Cardiff in the Championship, out of relative obscurity. Their international careers lasted 20 and 18 minutes respectively.
On the same day that Davies made his debut against Montenegro at Wembley, well away from Capello’s gaze in the Romanian city of Botosani, Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge both played for England’s Under-21s. As it happens both games finished goalless, but only in northern Romania did anything remotely useful for England’s long-term future take place.
During his press conference for the game in Leicester Southgate was asked about his contract situation, and dismissed it as a concern. “I will always manage the team as if I am going to be there forever,” he said. “It won’t change my approach to selection, to strategy. I think it’s the right thing and you have a responsibility when you are the England manager to do the right thing for England. Of course when you are in a World Cup or a European Championship it’s about winning that game, but in the interim period I think the nations who have done well have had longer-term thinking.”
In 2010 the Guardian greeted Davies’s call-up with apparent delight, announcing that it “confirms once again that Capello is unburdened by snobbery or preconceptions”, but history’s judgment has been a little more severe. The time when Southgate’s own decision-making will be judged is some way off, but in his unflinching focus on the country’s long-term future he has done his best to ensure that England’s latest attacking crisis is not only concerning but also, in a way, inspiring.