It has come to something when the hot topic of conversation at an international break is the problem of cramming all the available talent into the England squad. Yet that is the situation Gareth Southgate finds himself in (for now, at least).
The slightly wonky nature of last month’s 5-3 victory against Kosovo aside, England have proceeded serenely through Euro 2020 qualifying. They have maximum points from four matches, scoring 19 and conceding four. Visits to Prague and Sofia in the coming period might – might – change all that but otherwise there is barely a blot on the horizon. There is not even anybody who has been tweeting out of turn.
Instead the focus is on that notoriously “nice problem to have”: choosing who to pick and who to leave out when your options are plentiful. Kyle Walker’s time as an England starter looks to have been curtailed as he missed the cut for the second squad in a row, with Southgate preferring the attacking qualities of Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold to the slightly more defensive Walker. Dele Alli, too, will face a battle to get back into Southgate’s plans, with the manager wanting to see more of the Spurs man “getting into the areas where he is really dangerous”.
Making decisions is what Southgate is paid for but his criteria are of interest. Typically for the England manager he is willing to engage with the topic and he shed some light on his thought processes from the belly of Wembley Stadiumat Wembley this past week.
“It’s difficult because in a lot of sports, selection is very straightforward: you hit a time and you’re in or you’re out,” he said. “We have to balance what we think a player’s capable of. There are some that might be having a brief spell for their club that is very good, but we don’t think they can adapt their game to international football or we think there’s a limit on where they might be able to go. We need to balance that against a player that isn’t playing as regularly, perhaps, but we think is of a high quality.
“So, it’s a preference and it’s an advantage if guys are playing regularly because you want to come into a camp confident, fit, physically sharp. In the positions where it’s very tight, where you’ve got a lot of talent, that differentiator is key. It’s like in attacking midfield where Dele and Ox [Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain] haven’t been playing as much compared to [James] Maddison and [Mason] Mount, who have played every game and are scoring.
“At centre-back, Fik [Fikayo Tomori] has just come in and Joe [Gomez] isn’t playing as much, but we have great belief that they are going to be our better players moving forward because of their speed and their attributes and how that would translate into international football.
“Maybe if we had six or seven playing at a level that they are with similar attributes, we’d view that differently because they weren’t in the team, but that is a little bit more complicated in its way.
“I understand at times I’ll get some stick because I try to say: ‘You want to pick people in form who are playing regularly,’ and it isn’t always possible to do it exactly that way.”
It bears noting that such thoughtful – and, as far as we can tell, honest – assessments of their work are not commonplace among managers. It adds light and understanding for everyone and should be encouraged. That applies equally to the calm way Southgate tends to approach his public utterances, as borne out by his remarks on one of England’s youngsters who has as yet been unable to force their way into the senior squad, Phil Foden.
Foden is a multitalented footballer who has already won a World Cup (at under-17 level) and is thought by many to have the skillset necessary to knit play together in the middle. He is, however, one of those who is not playing much and his undoubted ability is not yet enough to get him into Southgate’s squad.
“I’d probably try to calm Phil’s situation, because there’s a lot of expectation around him and that’s a huge pressure for a young player potentially,” was Southgate’s take. “Phil is physically a different specimen as well, he is still physically developing.
“Pep [Guardiola] recognises the quality of the player, but equally the quality of the opposition around him, so I’m sure in the coming months that game time will increase as the number of matches racks up. You should always assess those things halfway through the season and towards the end of the season to see how much football they’ve got.”
For Foden, as with others currently outside the Three Lions camp, hopes of pulling on the shirt next summer remain alive.
The Guardian Sport