IAN LADYMAN: Exciting squad can deliver in the desert

IAN LADYMAN: Gareth Southgate has chosen an England squad full of technical ability, attacking flair and big tournament experience… but he must hope his enduring faith in Harry Maguire pays dividends

  • Gareth Southgate announced his 26-man England squad for the World Cup 
  • James Maddison would have been one of the easier calls he had to make 
  • It is a squad short on defensive depth but this is partly down to injury problems
  • Southgate does have a group with plenty of technical ability and attacking flair
  • He has selected an exciting squad to give England fans optimism in Qatar 

After a series of difficult telephone calls, Gareth Southgate left one until last that was different altogether. The final number the England manager tapped into his mobile on Thursday morning belonged to James Maddison.

‘The phone calls I made have been to the two lads that are coming back from injury, the boys I have left out of the squad and then to James,’ explained Southgate.

‘I had some very difficult calls that were emotionally at the other end of the spectrum so it was nice to give myself a little bit of an enjoyable end to all that.

Gareth Southgate has put together an England squad full of ability and attacking flair

‘James was delighted and the nature of those conversations, good and bad, reminds you how important it is to go to a World Cup. It is a great day.’

Whether November 10 does turn out to be remembered fondly depends very much on how England perform in a World Cup that begins for Southgate and his squad with a game against Iran a week on Monday.

For now, though, it would appear the manager has chosen a squad that, broadly speaking, many of us would have wished for. 

It is a squad short on defensive depth but that is nobody’s fault. Injuries have struck England hard across the back. But it is also a group of players long on technical ability, attacking flair and big tournament experience.

Southgate, 52, is not a manager fond of expansive predictions. Not for him talk of a golden generation. But he can at least board the plane to Doha on Tuesday knowing that, on paper at least, he has with him a group of players capable of making inroads in the tournament.

Southgate would have had some difficult calls to make to players who didn’t make the squad but he would have enjoyed the one to James Maddison to confirm his World Cup call-up

Southgate will have to hope his enduring faith in Harry Maguire pays off in Qatar

Memories of poor recent form will travel with England, of course. They have not won a game since March, a run of six fixtures.

At the last pre-match press briefing he delivered prior to this one, back in September, Southgate was pressed into admitting that his time in charge of the national team will come to an end if his team do not deliver in the desert.

But with the dawn of a big tournament comes optimism. It is always the way. Sometimes, it is not realistic but if Southgate chooses to look back on two successful tournaments — the last World Cup and last summer’s European Championship — for inspiration rather than what had undeniably been a difficult 2022 then it would be hard to blame him.

This is a squad that draws hard on those positive summer experiences. With that in mind, it was heartening to see Kalvin Phillips back on the field after injury this week and uplifting to see Marcus Rashford back where he belongs in the squad.

The Manchester United player’s return to form has been welcome and, as Southgate said, due in no small part to the impact of new manager Erik ten Hag at Old Trafford.

We hope that Maddison can make an impact. He is a gifted player who does not want for confidence. We hope also that the form of Newcastle’s Callum Wilson can accompany him to Doha and thus provide Southgate with a genuine alternative to captain Harry Kane, who cannot be expected to play every minute of every game in the heat of the Middle East.

It was uplifting to see Marcus Rashford back after his struggles with confidence last season

However, new attacking players such as these can only perform if provided with a structure and a base by a group of players who have seen all this before.

Undoubtedly, England’s defensive options are a worry. Southgate once said that if there was a World Cup just for full backs then we would win it. Now, with Reece James and Ben Chilwell absent injured and Kyle Walker not expected to be available for the group games, England can now consider themselves to be rather less stocked.

An injury to one of Luke Shaw or Kieran Trippier would bring Trent Alexander-Arnold into consideration for a starting place and the Liverpool defender is one player about whom we know Southgate has reservations.

Equally, at centre half Southgate must hope that his enduring faith in Harry Maguire pays dividends. If it doesn’t then the expectations of a nation may have to be tempered a little.

Southgate himself faces a test in Qatar. He is viewed by many as too conservative a coach. They feel this group of players would benefit from working for somebody bolder.

On this he said: ‘We are excited about this. We know that the last two tournaments we have learned a lot. We have broken a lot of barriers.

‘There’s a lot of belief in the group that they can handle these situations and the experience of it. That has been tempered a little bit by results in the recent past. But I’m excited about going to a World Cup. It is my fourth and that is a privilege and an honour.

Southgate has reservations over Trent Alexander-Arnold but any more injuries at full-back and the England manager might have to start the Liverpool star in Qatar

‘All of those calls I have made, the difficult ones and the really enjoyable ones, were a reminder of what it means to the players.

‘At the World Cup in 2018 we were at the start of something where we hadn’t won a knockout game for 10 years and there was a little bit less experience perhaps within the group of big matches.

‘I think this is a squad similar in terms of its standing to the group that went to the Euros last summer.

‘We are excited by the group. We think there is a lot of exciting young talent within it. Now the whole group has got to come together.’

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Tournament squads normally comprise 23 players. Three more are being allowed this time to safeguard against Covid complications.

That fact has undeniably afforded Southgate some leeway but he has taken advantage of it. Had he not selected Maddison it would have been a decision that would have followed him all the way to the tournament’s start.

He has seen that one off at the pass and this looks and feels like the right squad for what lies ahead. All that is left now is the actual football.




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