Has Gareth Southgate made the right calls ahead of Scotland and Spain?
Upon seeing Gareth Southgate’s provisional 25-man squad list for England’s upcoming matches against Scotland and Spain, the words which will have come to mind with the majority of England supporters will be something akin to “repetitive”, “same old” and “predictable”. But of course that begs the question as to whether or not the decisions taken by the interim manager were the right ones, and if not, what alternatives does he actually have at his disposal?
One of the more notable inclusions in Southgate’s squad is that of Arsenal man Jack Wilshere, currently on loan at Bournemouth, who has been summoned back into the international fold for the first-time since his disappointing showing at Euro 2016, ahead of England’s World Cup qualifier against Scotland at Wembley.
On Jack Wilshere’s inclusion, Southgate said to Sky Sports: “Jack is a player we feel has a lot of class and has now started to get more 90 minutes under his belt, and we think it’s a good moment to bring him back into the squad.”
That begs the question however as to whether that is really enough to warrant a return to the national team, particularly given that he is yet to register a goal or an assist for the Cherries, though he has managed to maintain an average successful pass percentage of 85.6%. It is the standout inclusion which inevitably will have caused the most debate amongst supporters.
Another surprise is the immediate inclusion of Tottenham’s Harry Kane in the squad, despite having sat out the last ten games through injury prior to his goalscoring return in the North London Derby against Arsenal over the weekend. He has established himself as an England regular over the last year, but has also only registered three goals for his club all season, and none for his country since his strike in England’s Euro 2016 warm-up match against Turkey at the Etihad.
Indeed, of the forwards that Gareth Southgate has included: Kane, Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, there are only eight Premier League goals between them so far this season. Sturridge in fact is still without a Premier League goal this season, and Rashford’s 576 minutes of game-time this season means that he has seen less action than Jack Wilshere, who has played a total of 596. In that time however, he has managed to notch three league goals.
The list of exclusions rather surprisingly includes in-form Southampton hit-man Charlie Austin, who has five Premier League goals so far this season and eight in all competitions, making him one of the most in-form English strikers. Jermain Defoe and Troy Deeney of Sunderland and Watford respectively, another two to be overlooked, have nine Premier League goals between them. With his six goals and one assist, Defoe is the leading English goalscorer in the Premier League, yet Southgate saw fit to opt against his inclusion. The players that make up the forward line has particularly begged the question of whether or not players should indeed be picked for the national side on form, rather than previous experience and the club that they play for; a question that has forever proved divisive amongst England followers.
Theo Walcott has been included once again given his electric form for Arsenal, despite disappointing showings in his last two England games against Malta and Slovenia, and that invites questions as to whether or not another player should be given an opportunity to shine for the national team. A midfield name not to be included however is that of Michail Antonio, who was called up for the one game of Sam Allardyce’s short tenure but didn’t make it onto the pitch. Since Southgate took the reins, Antonio was not included in the last England squad and misses out again here, despite his five goals making him the top goalscoring English midfielder so far in this season’s Premier League.
Antionio’s exclusion is put into perspective by the preferred inclusion of Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard. The Red Devils wide man has only made five Premier League appearances this season, playing 338 minutes and registering no goals and one assist. Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has enjoyed marginally more game-time and also boasts superior statistics (one goal and one assist) also missed out in Lingard’s favour.
Another player to be included in midfield at his expense is of course England captain Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United ace has come under fire for his waning form at Old Trafford and seems to be in the process of being ushered more and more towards the periphery by José Mourinho. Despite rumours surfacing that the skipper will need to move away from the Theatre of Dreams to find regular football, there is good reason for his inclusion that is often overlooked.
True, the forward turned midfielder has only made six league appearances thus far this season, with four starts, scoring once. Rooney has in that time, however, also managed four assists and maintained a pass completion average of 86.7%, some of the most impressive statistics amongst those included in Gareth Southgate’s midfield arsenal.
Despite missing a lot of the season through injury, a saving grace with regards to form over experience is the inclusion of West Ham United left-back Aaron Cresswell. His importance to Slaven Bilic’s Hammers side is unmitigated, and he has one assist already in the three games he has played. He has been knocking on the door of the national team with his consistent form for West Ham for some time, having registered two goals and four assists from left-back last season, and is well worth his inclusion here.
Albeit, even that was enforced, Cresswell having come into the squad to replace the injured Danny Drinkwater. Drinkwater has been unfortunate with injury and was unlucky not to make the final 23-man cut for Euro 2016 under Roy Hodgson, after clocking up three goals and eight assists in a fine run of form to help Leicester to a shock maiden Premier League title last season.
Another enforced change to the England squad was Sunderland’s in-form goalkeeper Jordan Pickford coming into the fold as cover to Joe Hart and Tom Heaton. The current fit second choice, Southampton’s Fraser Forster, was withdrawn by Saints through injury, and the Black Cats shot-stopper will relish the opportunity to step unto the void. It will undoubtedly be an exciting inclusion for England in general, with one of the country’s finest up and coming goalkeepers having the opportunity to train with the senior squad. He would’ve been featuring in the U-21 side this international break had Forster been fit.
An inclusion for which Southgate deserves some praise is that of Burnley’s promising young centre-half Michael Keane. The former Manchester United youngster has earned rave reviews at Burnley and is establishing himself as one of the Premier League’s most exciting young prospects. Elsewhere Andros Townsend, though attracting some debate, should be worth his inclusion. It was obvious under the Hodgson administration that he was a favourite of the former manager, often being included when he wasn’t enjoying a great deal of game-time at club level. He has enjoyed regular football this season however at Crystal Palace, and his form and subsequent call-up is a sign that moving back to London for the sake of his international career is a decision that is now paying dividends.
Of the remainder of the squad, the inclusions are largely to be expected. Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker of Tottenham and Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand are solid inclusions at full-back, whilst Gary Cahill, despite his indifferent form last season, has rolled back the years and is excelling at Chelsea in Antonio Conte’s three-man defence, whilst John Stones is rightfully another name to be included in the defensive pack following his excellent form for Manchester City.
The inclusion of Everton’s Phil Jagielka may seem a surprise to some, but as an experienced player at international level he is not only a reliable head, despite missing out on a place in the Euro 2016 squad, but he is part of a Toffees defence that before Saturday’s mauling by Chelsea had this season’s best defensive record in the Premier League.
Eric Dier’s presence as the midfield enforcer and the protective line in front of the back four was inevitable, since the Spurs man is currently the only player in the international fold who seems able to occupy the role. Despite being below par for England in the past, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling have all been in a rich vein of form for their clubs, and are justified inclusions, if not predictable.
In some places, it is strikingly obvious that opting for experience was an inevitability. However, what is alarming is that where there was room to select in-form players over more seasoned internationals, Southgate has hesitated to take the gamble where Sam Allardyce, on the evidence of his first and only ever national team selection, was willing to roll the dice.
Only time will tell of course whether this is the right decision for England. For the national team of course, despite Scotland’s stuttering form in the qualifying campaign so far, it is a derby, and it will be one of two of England’s biggest games in the group, the other being the return leg at Hampden Park in 2017. Experience here is of course necessary, but with a friendly match against Spain to follow, Southgate had an opportunity to select a set of players with whom he could experiment, and has opted against doing so.
With the same names, some justifiably so, others not, still gracing the team-sheet, and England continuing to muddle through qualifiers with relative ease, the cycle will continue until the national team either does or doesn’t flop in Russia, but more likely the latter, and the sequence begins again. Such is the pessimism surrounding England at present. On the lips of so many England supporters is the plea that somewhere, somebody has to change things to buck the trend, bring some innovation back into a squad which has regressed at major championships, or else the Three Lions will simply continue to stagnate or even decline.
Although this squad may have the mettle to get the job done against the Scots and give a good account of themselves against Spain, a change of approach is needed, for the current method which has been persisted with for years is simply not helping with taking the national team forward. On the evidence of his first two squad selections, Gareth Southgate is not the man to bring that change, and will continue to go for the “tried and tested”, the “safe” option, for want of a better word. But will his calls prove the right ones in the short term, and is it just another case of overlooking what it will do for England in the long run?
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Serg Hoholok.