The England squad:
GOALKEEPERS Jack Butland (Stoke), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley)
DEFENDERS Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Leicester), Danny Rose (Tottenham), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Manchester United)
MIDFIELDERS Dele Alli (Tottenham), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
STRIKERS Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jamie Vardy (Leicester), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal)
ON STAND-BY: Tom Heaton, James Tarkowski, Lewis Cook, Jake Livermore, Adam Lallana.
1) There was talk of ‘shock exclusions’, ‘shock inclusions’ and all manner of other kinds of shocks as we were drip-fed details of this England squad, but the only genuine surprise came late on Wednesday morning when it emerged that Trent Alexander-Arnold had been included at the age of just 19. That is Southgate’s only ‘drop the mic’ moment. Forget Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill, Joe Hart, Ryan Bertrand and even Jack Wilshere; that is the headline and it is a doozy.
Other than that curveball, this was a squad signposted by Gareth Southgate if you were paying any attention at all. There is a reason I picked 21 of the 23 names on Tuesday morning, and I even wrote that ‘I have a sneaking suspicion that Delph will go ahead of Wilshere but I am quelling that sneaking suspicion because I love Jack so’. I also quelled that sneaking suspicion on the advice of Daniel Storey, who is far too emotive to be trusted on such serious matters. He will never be listened to again – on this or any other subject.
2) Look at the team and substitutes that played the Netherlands in March and Southgate basically gave us 17 names he intended to name in his England squad. He lost two players to injury but the remaining 15 form the core of this World Cup squad, with unused goalkeepers Jack Butland and Nick Pope making 17. The then-crocked Harry Kane took the total to 18, the half-fit Adam Lallana should have made it 19 and that left four spaces.
The key was that Southgate himself mentioned the injured Fabian Delph, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Phil Jones, saying they were “very much in our thinking”. The last man was Gary Cahill, and he was always going to be included once he reclaimed his Chelsea place, especially in the absence of Joe Gomez. Southgate basically told us the squad; what he did not bargain on was Lallana failing to get fit and a young Englishman reaching the Champions League final. Nobody did.
3) “It’s very exciting, he’s shown in some really big games that he has more than coped, he’s excelled. That’s great credit to him. He is experiencing big games, and winning big games. That is an important thing for young players, those experiences stay in your memory bank,” said Southgate of Alexander-Arnold this week.
And that really is key. Alexander-Arnold has not got the call as a wild card or to appease those who call for youth, but because even at his age he has played in and crucially won massive games under pressure. We are not blessed with many English players – young or old – who have that under their belt. This is the safest of big risks. It’s basically got Gareth Southgate written all over it.
4) Gary Cahill was of course dropped from that March squad because poor form had led to him losing his place at Chelsea. He returns because he has since proved he is one of the best English centre-halves in the Premier League. How do we know this? Because he is playing for Chelsea, one of the best teams in the Premier League. Football is largely a meritocracy; the cream generally rises to the top. James Tarkowski is not a better defender right now and neither is Jamaal Lascelles. The very fair Southgate dropped Cahill when he did not deserve his place and recalled him when he does. This is how it is supposed to work.
Cahill wisely kept his counsel when he was dropped and on Tuesday night he said: “I couldn’t do anything when I was out of the (Chelsea) team. When I was back in the team and got back to the levels I’m ready to perform at, when I got back in I was doing it time and time again.
“My CV’s there. It’s just whether they want to use that or go that way or not. That’s not my decision. I’ve just got to perform as best I can, which I’ve tried to do in the last five, six weeks, to put myself back in the frame. If it’s good enough, it’s good enough…if it’s not, it’s not.”
It was. And we are absolutely fine with that.
5) Contrast the coolness of Cahill with the reaction of Joe Hart, who has been nothing short of f***ing awful this season (39 goals conceded in 19 games shades of f***ing awful if you insist on quantifying that statement), has been duly dropped by England and then promptly let it be known to sympathetic members of media that he blames West Ham manager David Moyes.
How much warmer would we all feel towards Hart if his reaction was to admit that not being one of the best three English keepers right now means that he really did not deserve an England squad place? Why does he deserve special treatment? He is one of 11 players who has not survived from the Euro 2016 squad because football evolves. Two years ago he deserved his place and now he does not. The same applies – for different reasons – to both Fraser Forster and Tom Heaton. All three keepers have been replaced for reasons beyond David Moyes. Sometimes ‘fronting up’ involves looking in the mirror, Joe.
6) So only 11 members of that Euro 2016 squad are now in England’s 2018 World Cup squad (and five from 2014) and that feels like the right level of evolution. What’s worth noting is the age range of the 23 players. Although the average age is roughly the same (26) as 2016, England now have a much healthier ratio of players at their peak.
Roy Hodgson did the hard yards in 2016 by naming seven players under 23 and just ten in the peak 23-28 age range, giving Southgate the base to name just three players (Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Trent Alexander-Arnold) under 23 and a massive 17 in that middle range. This might not be a team massively blessed with talent but we have at least got the balance right in terms of age. There is a smattering of youth, a soupçon of experience and a massive wedge of players in their prime.
7) There will always be those who claim ‘big club bias’ and 18 of the 23 being from the big six (if we credit Chelsea with Ruben Loftus-Cheek) appears to underline that bias. But the truth is that there is a big-club bias because the better players are at the biggest clubs. It really is as simple as that. The exceptions in this case are the three goalkeepers, Jamie Vardy (England’s second-most prolific striker) and Leicester’s Harry Maguire, whose place may well have been in doubt had Joe Gomez not succumbed to injury.
If players from Southampton and West Ham were genuinely better than those from Liverpool and Manchester United, they would not be playing for Southampton and West Ham. It may not be a popular view but it is one shared by successive England managers.
8) Newcastle fans want to chime in here and talk about Jonjo Shelvey and Lascelles and I do have some sympathy. With Lascelles, the mistake was possibly made in that March squad when Southgate called up James Tarkowski and Alfie Mawson; I would argue that Lascelles is better than both and should have had the chance to impress Southgate at close quarters. Without that rehearsal, you cannot claim that he should have been in his England squad. Once the England manager has made a decision not to include anybody from outside the England set-up – and we know he is no maverick – that ruled Lascelles out of the equation.
Shelvey is probably the one player who would be in that 23 on talent alone – he has a range of passing that is largely lacking in this England squad, unless Jordan Henderson finally decides to replicate his club form and forward-thinking instincts at international level. But the truth is that Shelvey is a player who comes with baggage, not just the weight of two red cards this season, but stories of a poor attitude both on and off the pitch. Perhaps if he had called him up earlier, any fears could have been dispelled with an honest conversation and application in training, but Southgate is not a man predisposed to taking risks in May ahead of a tournament in June.
9) Unless you have watched Ryan Sessegnon, Jadon Sancho and Ademola Lookman on at least ten occasions this season, I do not want to hear you saying that England should call up any of those players in some kind of blanket ‘go with youth’ policy. All those players – and many, many more – are all in the England youth set-up. If any England manager is well placed to know which players are ready for promotion, it is Gareth ‘England DNA’ Southgate. Sending ‘the kids’ to Russia to get beat is nonsensical; his job is to pick the best possible squad to compete at this tournament, with a squad of players who will – for the most part – still be available in 2020 and beyond, supplemented by the best of those ‘kids’. This evolution will be televised.
10) Let’s talk about Danny Welbeck. The truth is that a list of the top five English goalscorers in the Premier League over the last two years reads Harry Kane (59), Jamie Vardy (33), Dele Alli (27), Raheem Sterling (25) and Jermain Defoe (19). And the majority of Defoe’s goals are now around 18 months old. Beyond that is a list of not-quite journeymen including Ashley Barnes, Troy Deeney and Callum Wilson. At Under-21 level there is a list of not-quite-yet players including Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke.
So against that as the backdrop, picking one of the few players with a history of scoring goals at international level makes some degree of sense. Without Welbeck, Kane would be the only England player in Russia in double figures for international goals. Dele Alli has not scored for England since October 2016; Raheem Sterling has not scored for England since October 2015. Improbably, Welbeck has scored 15 goals in 37 internationals. He has a knack and we don’t have many options with that knack.
11) Talking about a rare knack, Lallana’s guile was not quite prized enough for us to take a chance on a man who has played 236 minutes of Premier League football this season. You can see how we have somehow found ourselves in this position of really, really hoping he would be fit; the only English players with significant numbers of assists this season are Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli, neither of which are known for their two-footed magic in tight spaces and both of which are already in the squad.
As Southgate said in October: “In my year in charge, Adam Lallana has been our best player and we’ve not had him for the last three matches. There are some players who can unlock defences and score goals. Dele is an interesting player. If you analyse his game closely he’s a scorer of goals and he’s not necessarily the link player Adam is.”
Balls. The England manager really must be gutted.
12) And if Lallana could not be risked, then neither could Wilshere, especially as he would be expected to play for 90 minutes and not just a few moments at the end of a match when the Panama defence has dropped to the edge of the six-yard box.
Writing as a big fan of possible the most talented English central midfielder of this generation, it feels like a massive shame but it is an understandable decision. Would it have been made had Wilshere been fit to play against Italy or the Netherlands in March? Would it even have been made had he got himself onto the pitch on Sunday as Arsenal beat Huddersfield? It has not all been down to his fitness – he was rested for Europa duties and then his missus had a baby – but it does not look great that he has started only one of the Gunners’ last seven Premier League games.
13) If not these attacking players, then who? The answer – if we look at the stand-by list – is only Lallana. He is literally the only available cover for Kane, Vardy, Rashford, Welbeck, Sterling, Loftus-Cheek and Lingard. It’s not a list without talent but it is a list without any real competition. Should Kane get injured, then Lallana gets called up. Should Vardy get injured, then Lallana gets called up. We had better hope he is at least a little bit fit.
England’s lack of attacking depth is such that our World Cup ladder does not have another attacking option outside the first 23 until Dominc Solanke at No. 32. Faced with a gaping hole where back-up strikers and attacking midfielders should be, Southgate has named the safest stand-by list in football tournament history.
14) You have to feel for Ryan Bertrand. Only five players – Walker, Rashford, Dier, Stones and Hart – have played more England games under Southgate, and yet Bertrand is the under-the-radar fall guy as Rose has demonstrated in recent weeks that he is, after all, England’s best left-back. Which would have been fine if Ashley Young had not simultaneously been versatile, experienced and excellent against Mo Salah, all of which are pretty rare and precious commodities. He can really have no complaints, just quite a lot of sadness.
15) “The selection process has been over months really, it’s not just been the last few weeks,” said Southgate on his unveiling of the squad. Which is why none of this really is a shock – apart from the selection of a young man with rather a long name. That we are excited about his inclusion but are shrugging at the names of Loftus-Cheek and Maguire shows you how much this England team has already evolved in less than two years since Euro 2016. The future might not be bright but at least it does not look dull.
16) There’s no Jake Livermore. Yet. Everything else is irrelevant.
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