I just want to be as undramatic as possible for a second: the best nap I’ve ever taken in all of my fruitful years on Earth was as I was reading the newly released England squad.
What exactly is Gareth Southgate playing at??
We have two friendlies coming up so I understand the strategy of calling up fringe players to see if they are ready and prepared for the stresses that come along with a potential World Cup place. I understand selecting some outliers who may have the potential to get on the plane to Russia, but who may not likely make the cut if the final summer roster was announced today. I comprehend all of this and am still utterly baffled by what the manager is trying to do.
On the face of it England are going to get destroyed in this upcoming tournament. I am not currently worried about it because I have enough to deal with watching Manchester City stroll to a title. But, I think now is a decent time to start panicking. Let’s talk through some of the absurdities and hypocrisies of this Three Lions outfit.
Southgate has claimed that he’s only interested in players currently in form. I value that philosophy and am wholly onboard with using that particular MO when choosing players for international tournaments you are attempting to win. So…ummmm…why am I seeing some of these names??
Joe Hart. STOP IT. Apparently, you just need to be breathing and born in England to be selected as an international goalkeeper. Hart doesn’t even play regularly for a West Ham club cruising to relegation. I watched him play on the 10th of March against Burnley and he shipped three goals to a side who STRUGGLE to score. I mean, for the third goal he just pushed the ball into the path of Chris Wood after failing to handle a rather innocuous shot. I do appreciate his experience that he brings, especially for a side that will skew relatively young, but based on merit he should be nowhere near this team. It hasn’t been a very prosperous season for English keepers but the only 3 deserving to be in this conversation are Everton’s Jordan Pickford, Stoke City’s Jack Butland and Burnley’s Nick Pope (I would feel safer with even Aston Villa’s useful Sam Johnstone than Joe Hart). Irrespective, this position is now officially a weakness for England. Pickford the starter for me, but still ain’t NOBODY scared of him.
Who else? Alfie Mawson you say? Listen, I am all for blooding young players and particularly defenders. But a centre back for a Swansea City team that specializes in conceding goals makes me hesitant. He’s a talent for sure and will undoubtedly attract interest from bigger clubs this summer, but for right now just leave it out, bruv. But fine, if you want to select him then why aren’t we seeing an in form Jamaal Lascelles on a productive Newcastle United team getting a call? He’s having a wonderful season on a surprisingly staunch Magpies back line. They are both 24 and could both use these friendlies as England experience. Also, how about Brighton’s Lewis Dunk? Dunk features incessantly for a side impressing everyone this season. I am more willing to reward and trust the defenders finding success domestically. But, here we have Mawson getting the nod and established defenders like Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill getting snubbed. Again, this is a fantastic opportunity to give new players a shot but deliberately ignoring footballers who can beneficially contribute is bizarre. Smalling starts for a largely impenetrable Manchester United defence. Yes, he’s inconsistent and at times error prone but surely he’s at least an option off the bench! He starts for MANCHESTER UNITED! But okay, Gareth lad, no Smalling, then where is Ben Mee? Mee is playing week in week out for an impressive Burnley defence (Mee’s centre partner James Tarkowski was deservedly called up) that must give him priority over the likes of Mawson. Mee is 28 so clearly not one for the future but he, as well as Dunk, deserve their chance.
The left back position is now also a weakness for England. With Luke Shaw not quite fulfilling his potential at the moment and not being in Jose Mourinho’s good graces at United, he doesn’t have the match minutes to realistically start for the English. Leaving the slot ripe for competition. Shaw should still be a part of the squad heading to Russia and these friendlies would have been an ideal opportunity for Southgate to see if Shaw can cut it, is in shape and if he has that explosiveness he once had. Shaw needs to play domestically, but is still worth an inclusion even from the bench. He’s on Mourinho’s bad side, which doesn’t necessarily mean Shaw isn’t in form (it’s really seeming like an ego vs. ego debacle as of right now). Instead Southgate has gone with Danny Rose. Rose has made only six Premier League appearances for Tottenham this term. He has struggled with an injury and saw Welshman Ben Davies start over him for Spurs’ recent crucial matches versus Juventus and the FA Cup quarterfinal against Swansea this past weekend. I have no issues with Rose being on the team, but I would not look to him as being the surefire starter. There needs to be a healthy competition between Rose, Shaw, City’s Fabian Delph when fit again and Ashley Young, the player Shaw can’t seem to unseat at United. Ryan Bertrand has been selected, and is undoubtedly skilled, but is not currently playing all that life-changingly well and is on a Southampton team canoodling with relegation. Bertrand should have sat at home this go round and made to work for his place heading into June.
I don’t really know where to begin with the midfield. I honestly don’t have too many complaints for the simple fact that England just doesn’t have that many quality midfielders. We have attackers, but we generally lack a central midfield boss. Right now everyone is fighting for a position playing alongside Tottenham’s reliable and versatile Eric Dier. Jordan Henderson being a lock to not only make every England team and likely starting and maybe even captaining the side perfectly highlights my point. Nobody is winning a World Cup being led by Hendo, boy. They just aren’t. But he’s essential due to the distinct lack of alternatives. I really like the inclusion of Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook, the 21 year old central midfielder who captained the U-20 side to World Cup glory and looks a proper talent, but why am I seeing Jake Livermore on the team sheet?? JAKE LIVERMORE, you guys. Jake anchors a West Bromwich Albion midfield which can’t even remember the last time it won a game. They are the definitive worst team in the Premier League and that’s a difficult task in a season where up to eleven clubs are legitimately battling relegation. Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey was overlooked, is in form and much more deserving than Livermore. Not only that, are we forgetting that Livermore STOLE A FUCKING TAXI IN BARCELONA A MONTH AGO. Have we already forgotten about that??? Jake, mate. A taxi! In Spain! Whilst there to train! That story should have been a world headline. It should be made into a movie starring Thor and a red wine crushing James Bond. Imagine you went to work tomorrow and the day ended with you stealing a yellow cab. Imagine that! There would certainly be some sort of follow up questioning. I regularly watch television shows less hilarious and adventurous than that. Young homie stole a Spanish set of wheels and we’re just going to go ahead and not only forget, but also reward him with a place in the England set up. Bravo, mis amigos!
And if Southgate is looking to experiment with the likes of a Lewis Cook then why not more youth proving to be future stars? City’s Phil Foden has what it takes to make this squad. He’s only 17, a U-17 World Cup winner at that, but is making meaningful appearances for Man City in midfield (Foden can play in a few positions but he operates at his best in an attacking midfield role). He’s a winner and would add some spark and pizazz to this mostly boring middle. Foden is also a much more enticing option than Adam Lallana. Lallana does not play for Liverpool often enough for me to value his contribution as an England player. Southgate bangs on about choosing players playing and Lallana features infrequently for a team that simply doesn’t need him. For what it’s worth, I would take Fulham’s teenage sensation Ryan Sessegnon ahead of Lallana. Sessegnon can play at left back or on the wing. Despite being only 17, he is handling the pressure of being the next face of England very expertly and is dominating in the Championship as Fulham look to battle for promotion to the Prem.
With that said, Sessegnon will struggle to get into any England teams of the immediate future, however, due to his positioning. He doesn’t play in the somewhat bereft middle we currently have, but on the left side, and England are quite stacked on the flanks. City’s Raheem Sterling and United’s Jesse Lingard are much more dynamic and experienced options on the wing. But, I would be looking to Ryan in situations like these friendlies to get him that experience and see if he does in actuality fit in the system. He changes games, which is what we need, and looks to be getting better week by week.
If you’re asking why I’m not talking about Leon Bailey as an option on the flank, it is because Bayer Leverkusen’s exciting winger Bailey is Jamaican and is not eligible (from what I understand) for England because his grandparents were not born in England, just hold British passports. If Bailey was indeed eligible and wanted to wear the English white shirt, I would call him up immediately just to make sure the 20 year old can then not go on and represent any other countries. He was born in Kingston, the same city England’s Sterling hails from. What a duo that would be out wide.
Lastly, the forwards. Harry Kane is temporarily injured so that allows one player to sneak in and see if they can cement a spot on the team. Oddly, Southgate went with Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck. Again, Welbeck doesn’t start for Arsenal and hasn’t been productive for years. He played well a few times for England (which apparently is all we are remembering nowadays), but that was a long time ago. I love Welbeck. I’ve watched his whole career as he came up through the United youth ranks to become a champion. But, we are trying to win this World Cup, not the 2010 or 2014 versions. According to Southgate’s own philosophy of picking players in form, I am not sure why a tepid Welbeck is there and I would have given the deserving Glenn Murray of Brighton a spot. Murray at 34 years old has 11 League goals this season and that is more than any English forward not Kane or Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy. And we always need goals. This was a genuine head scratcher for me. Give Murray his due!
To put my money where my mouth is, if the World Cup was starting today and everyone was fit, this would be my (very attack forward) starting XI in a 4-2-3-1:
GK: Jordan Pickford
DEF: Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire (I would start Phil Jones here if he can get some pitch time before the summer), Ashley Young
MID: Eric Dier, Dele Alli
MID: Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford
FWD: Harry Kane
The biggest dilemma Southgate will face is trying to fit in all of the attack minded midfielders whilst attempting to maintain a sense of balance. I fully expect him to play Dier and Henderson and then to consequently bungle the Sterling and Alli placements. Rashford will likely be the casualty in the starting lineup but should without question be on the bench. I believe the back line will thrive with players already playing together at club level (Walker and Stones from City and Jones and Young from United). That chemistry can make up for some of the dip in quality compared to what we are used to seeing at centre back as England fans (no Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, John Terry or a younger Gary Cahill to rely upon).
There we have it. England will be young and ready to pounce if Southgate plays his cards correctly. We will need players like Young and Cahill to bring their experience and leadership to a bunch of kids trying to change England’s usually poor tournament fate. I worry about the fatigue levels of this youthful but exuberant crop (let’s not forget the Tottenham players all bottoming out by the time Euro 2016 came about), but am truly excited about what we potentially could accomplish. It is imperative Southgate attains proper depth and that entails selecting players positively affecting their clubs. That will be the key to England’s success, so I am hoping his decision making improves come the end of the season.