28.05.2018 - Are Gareth Southgate’s choices for his squad in this summer’s World Cup all that difficult to comprehend? He has settled for a squad that is heavy on youth and promise. And for the criticism received for some players left out; there are robust arguments to back up that he has made the correct decision.The fact that England have a squad not as steeped in quality as tournaments in the past is a reality check. Outside of the likes of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, England no longer have a wealth of pedigree cover in each position. Southgate can only pick from what is available to him. There are few question marks over the players chosen in attack but there has and will be some argument over some of the choices further down the pitch.
England are not seen as a major threat to any of the bigger countries in Russia this summer. With odds of 7/1 at Sportsbet to win the tournament outright, Southgate’s troops are well down the pecking order of possible winners, behind holders Germany, marginal favourites Brazil, Spain, France, Argentina and Belgium.
With a squad of such relative inexperience and with a lack of world-class cover in all positions, there is little expectation in England and outside that Southgate is in possession of a side with a chance of winning the World Cup. In a way, the pressure is off; as much as it can be with England. But there seems little talk of a repeat of their sole victory in 1966.
Image Credit: Facebook FIFA World Cup
Southgate, a former England centre-back of considerable control and quality, is not under immediate pressure with regards to his own position. There seems to be a certain amount of pragmatism with regards to what it is believed that he can achieve. So in that sense, there appears to be some level of freedom for his squad to perform, without the pressure of ridicule on their return home.
With this in mind, the former Aston Villa player and Middlesbrough manager has picked a squad that one could say is with one eye on the future but has a chance to cement something special ahead of June’s tournament.
The greatest talking point following the announcement of the squad was the omission of Joe Hart. The three goalkeepers named ahead of him have less than ten caps between them. Jordan Pickford, with seven appearances for his country, is the man in the driving seat. He is supported by the twice-capped Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland. And those who thought Hart may have snuck onto the plane as third-choice goalkeeper were wrong.
Nick Pope may not have played for his country as of yet but his form at club level has instilled more confidence in Southgate than that of Hart. When Burnley’s first choice goalkeeper, Tom Heaton, injured his shoulder in a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace back in September, Pope was not yet close to taking his place in the starting team.
However, Pope has been instrumental in Burnley’s mean defence that saw them finish in seventh place, in a season where many people thought they may well struggle following on from a successful 2016-17 season. Pope kept Burnley on top in many a match when tight margins were held in the team’s collective tight grip.
Pope, who has excellent concentration and is a highly flexible shot-stopper from varying ranges, was the building block on which so much of what Sean Dyche’s side did well this term was built. That Hart had clearly more experience than the 26-year-old from Soham was not enough to convince the England manager to bring him to Russia.
John Stones is the type of stylish player that Southgate enjoys using in his sides, and it is on this basis that he is a certainty in the squad. Southgate has always maintained that he requires his players to be playing well and consistently at club level. This has not been the case for Stones this season past. He is no longer an automatic choice at Manchester City.
However, England are not inundated with high-calibre central defenders; particularly not to the same level as they have been in the past. So for all Southgate’s wishes for players to be automatic starters at club level- this is something that is clearly not happening. It is not just Stones, though. In Danny Rose, he has another player of considerable ability who has fallen somewhat out of favour; in his case with Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur. Ben Davies is generally favoured ahead of the fullback.
Image Credit: Facebook BlueMoonRising TV
The trend continues with Gary Cahill. He has been omitted on several occasions under Antonio Conte at Chelsea, when the big occasions came calling. He played no part in the Champions League games against Barcelona and was dropped also for the Premier League games against the likes of Man City, Man Utd and Spurs. What he does have though, is relative experience in the context of this England squad. 58 caps for the 32-year-old sees him secure his place.
While his experience amongst the squad will be essential, especially among a coterie of defenders who are limited in their tournament knowledge, he could well see himself behind the likes of Harry Maguire – who has just four caps – when it comes to game time. And if Southgate does go with a formation of three central defenders and attacking wing-backs, Kieran Trippier could see an opportunity to build on his five caps amassed to date.
In midfield, the trend continues for Southgate. Whilst a full-back in his breakthrough season with Liverpool, Trent Alexander-Arnold could be elevated to a wing-back place in the side, should a five-man midfield be in place. Having not played for England yet, it could be considered that he will play no or little part in the World Cup campaign. However, such is the inexperience of the squad, that it does not seem beyond the realms of possibility that he will play a part. Particularly if England do manage to progress in the tournament and use the squad to its full advantage.
The balance in experience is made up for with the likes of Ashley Young, who has found a calling in the autumn of his career, as a wing-back.
Eric Dier will more than likely be the rock on which England’s midfield is built. The defensive midfielder, with 25 caps to his name, is relatively experienced in context. At 24, this seems a lot of pressure on a player who is still so young. However, he has shown in the past that he can handle it. His diversity also means that he can very easily drop back into central defence.
This is Jordan Henderson’s fourth tournament for England and. despite having his detractors, he is likely to feature as a central figure both on and off the pitch. He will turn 29 in June, and this will be his time to prove his doubters wrong; something he can do if his concentration levels do not waver. His experience is something Southgate will rely on heavily when inevitable tricky periods occur in games.
Between Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Danny Welbeck, you would be forgiven for saying there is a wealth of experience in this England squad. And there is; Vardy and Welbeck are some of the older squad players and Vardy, in particular, is as streetwise as they come. He is unlikely to fit into Southgate’s starting line-ups. But his impact from the bench will be important, particularly in tight games where his sharpness could be the element needed to break the mindset of stubborn defences.
Image Credit: Facebook Raheem Sterling
In Kane, who has a record of 12 international goals in just 23 games, England and Southgate have a player who is the attacking bedrock. Kane and Sterling could play in tandem - the former Liverpool man has proven so many wrong in an illuminating season for Man City. And the 37-times capped 23-year-old is still so young. Something that is lost amongst his critics, reluctant to give him the breathing space to mature and flourish.
But, in Southgate, England have a manager who is willing to be patient and invest in youth. Southgate may not have as many options as some of his predecessors did but he is clearly a manager who is willing to take measured risks on young players who have limited or, in some cases, no international experience.
That he is doing it as he leads his country into a major tournament, is worth praise. Unless there is a particularly poor showing, it is likely Southgate will get the opportunity to continue his role after the tournament ends.
England is unlikely to win this summer’s tournament. The consensus being that throughout the squad, there is simply not enough depth. However, with youth and inexperience in some quarters, comes an element of unpredictability. We do not know enough of this group, to say they can only do things one way or another.
With that, there is the element of surprise, and in turn, hope. And with hope – anything is always possible.