Just as the league season is getting into a nice rhythm along comes the first international break, like a dark cloud in a bright sky.
It’s not all bad, some people welcome bit of shade and rain is good for the garden but it’s fair to say international football – in the shape of an Ukraine-England qualifier and an England-Scotland friendly – is not what every football fan was hoping for this weekend.
Luckily, has decided to spice things up by again calling up perennial bench-warmers and Kalvin Phillips and overlooking the likes of Raheem Sterling, Jarrod Bowen and James Ward-Prowse, three players who have started the season with the vigorous abandon of men who fear it may be their last.
Southgate admitted Sterling was ‘not particularly happy’ to be left out while Rio Ferdinand said he was ‘amazed’. Not at his own omission – the big man retired eight years ago and is more vibes than tackles nowadays – but on behalf of others.
‘Phillips and Maguire don’t kick a ball. They don’t play,’ said the former England captain, not at all unreasonably. ‘If I was Sterling, I’d be very disappointed. If you’re going by the yard stick Gareth’s using with the likes of Maguire and Phillips, why is it all right for them guys to get in and not him?’
It is a fair point, and one Southgate probably isn’t very comfortable with. Save for the odd opportunity to wrap Harry Kane or Bukayo Saka in cotton wool before a big game, no international manager wants their players to be sitting on the bench at club level.
It is a situation which gives credence to a charge long levelled at the England boss – namely that he is excessively loyal to certain players. But is that fair?
Where are the players who could come into the team for Maguire, or fill Phillips’ role as understudy to Declan Rice? Of the 45 men who started at centre-back in the Premier League last weekend, only 13 are qualified to play for England.
Three of them, Lewis Dunk, Levi Colwill and Marc Guehi, are in the squad. Two more, Dan Burn and Joe Gomez, were covering for injuries. James Tarkowski is 30 and won the last of his two caps in 2018, Max Kilman now captains Wolves and may have a case for recognition, Jarrad Branthwaite was an unused substitute in England’s Euro Under-21 final triumph this summer and is yet to establish himself at Everton. That leaves Reece Burke, Jack Robinson, Ben Mee, Joe Worrall and Craig Dawson. Who are you picking?
Defensive midfield is even sparser territory. Without boring you with the sums, if you take the deepest-lying midfielder playing for each top-flight team last weekend then only three of them were English – Harrison Reed, Lewis Cook and Declan Rice. Four if you judge Nottingham Forest’s Ryan Yates to be a defensive midfielder, which he isn’t.
So, if you want Kalvin Phillips replaced as your ‘break-glass-in-case-of-emergency’ cover for Declan Rice you can have Harrison Reed, Lewis Cook or Ryan Yates. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but those are your options. We can discuss why Ward-Prowse isn’t picked and Conor Gallagher is but neither are defensive midfielders anyway, so let’s not.
So, the evidence suggests, Southgate’s perseverance with Maguire and Phillips is necessity rather than excessive loyalty. Pragmatism, not belligerence.
In attack, the England manager faces a very different issue – less who do you pick than who do you leave out? Sterling may be rejuvenated at Chelsea and Bowen in brilliant form for West Ham but do they offer more at international level than Saka, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish or James Maddison? Ward-Prowse has given the Hammers a creative spark but has he done enough to partner Rice when Jude Bellingham is the top scorer in LaLiga?
For years, England’s shortcomings at international level could in part be attributed to a lack of quality going forward – too many roundheads, not enough cavaliers. Things suddenly look very different: an abundance of quality in attack, a threadbare set of options in defensive areas. It’s a nice problem to have but it’s still a problem.
Another issue facing Southgate is how to keep a successful team – and England are such a team – fresh without losing what made them good to start with. With the inclusion of Guehi, Colwill, Eberechi Eze and Eddie Nketiah the manager continues to show he is prepared to do that. In other areas, he may want to do more but he literally doesn’t have any choice.
, . , and .