Gareth Southgate has announced his 26-man England squad for the World Cup. Alex Keble highlights how the Three Lions boss remains too conservative.
Gareth Southgate has announced his 26-man squad for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and although there are a few notable surprises it is, on balance, a conservative and relatively shock-free selection.
That is, in part, thanks to injuries saving Southgate from difficult choices - Chelsea pair Ben Chilwell and Reece James are both out, while Manchester City duo Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips have been cleared to play.
Nevertheless, the safety and relative lack of drama around this afternoon’s release captures Southgate’s cautious managerial style and the consistency of his selections over the last few years.
That he has picked the second-most capped England World Cup squad ever – the current lot have 820 between them, one fewer than the 821 of the 2010 team – tells its own story.
One of the biggest issues facing England this winter is the lack of game-time afforded to their defenders.
Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and John Stones – that’s 60% of Southgate's back five – are not playing regularly at club level, which is partly a reflection on England’s lack of quality here, but also a reflection on Southgate’s stubbornness.
He has stuck with the core of 2018 and 2021, even as those players’ club sides evolve and move on.
There is a good chance this means Maguire, in particular, is rusty and error-prone, although the selection of Ben White – most likely for his versatility, having played right-back this season for Arsenal – does give Southgate options.
More likely, White is picked as a natural replacement for Kyle Walker on the right of a three, leaving Maguire secure, unless Southgate has been swayed by Eric Dier’s performances in the middle of a back three at Tottenham Hotspur.
The manager’s decision to leave out Fikayo Tomori, a title winner with AC Milan, and Marc Guehi, enjoying another excellent season at Crystal Palace, tells us Southgate has no interest in shaking things up.
In the wing-back positions, Trent Alexander-Arnold gets the nod almost by default but probably won’t feature. Kieran Trippier will be the starter – which is more than enough change for such a conservative head coach.
Recent England squads have been alarmingly light on midfield options so it is encouraging to see six central midfielders make the grade.
Those who hope Southgate opens up a bit (he won’t) will be happy to see Conor Gallagher added to the roster and indeed he is a battling box-to-box addition that suggests Southgate wants to move beyond Jordan Henderson.
Given what happened against Croatia in 2018 and Italy in 2021, Jude Bellingham is precisely the kind of intelligent and technically-gifted midfielder England need to adapt to the rhythm of a tough match and control proceedings.
Consequently the return of Kalvin Phillips, who is unlikely to be fully fit, is slightly concerning. Why rush Phillips back if Southgate isn’t intent on using him?
Maybe England can make do with a rusty centre-back in Maguire, but add a rusty Phillips and the core is significantly weakened.
The most significant headline is the inclusion of Leicester City’s James Maddison, which seems to go against everything Southgate has ever said about his squad selections.
Maddison lacks experience (just one senior cap), is enjoying a brief burst of good form at club level (something Southgate claims to ignore) and has no obvious place in the preferred 3-4-3 system.
England’s 4-2-3-1 did not look good in either defeat to Hungary, which probably means it won’t be used at all in Qatar, so presumably Maddison is included to play as a wide forward in the 3-4-3 or as a central midfielder in a 3-5-2.
In either case, that suggests Southgate has been made nervous by the club form of Mason Mount, whose capacity to flit between the attacking and midfield lines can give England an even greater defensive slant.
But if Southgate decided he needed a number 10, perhaps he should have looked at Harvey Elliott. Elliott has injected positional intelligence and urgent forward energy into the Liverpool midfield; he would have been the perfect impact sub to turn the tide should England’s midfield be overrun in the knockout stages.
The tournament came just too early for Elliott, or, to read it another way, Southgate was far too late in reacting to bring through the next generation.
Maddison, with more goal involvements (30) in the Premier League than any other English player since August 2021, is more deserving than Elliott. Southgate should have made room for both of them.
Ivan Toney was selected in the England squad for their final two matches before the World Cup but was not given a single minute of action, which seemingly means Southgate saw something in training he did not like.
It feels like a missed opportunity given that Toney is the link-man, and the target man, England would need should Harry Kane pick up an injury.
Instead, Southgate has plumped for Newcastle United’s in-form Callum Wilson, who has six goals and two assists in ten Premier League matches this season but hasn’t played for England since 2019.
He has been instrumental to Eddie Howe’s transition-centric football, and it would appear Southgate has decided – rather last minute – that the tactical stylings of Howe are closer to his own than those of Thomas Frank.
That change is understandable, which is more than can be said for losing Jarrod Bowen for Marcus Rashford.
Bowen has done well in an England shirt and despite West Ham United’s struggles can feel hard done by here, given that Rashford has consistently underperformed for England and has been no more effective for Manchester United this season than his team-mate Jadon Sancho, who also misses out.
In truth, Rashford and Wilson aren’t likely to play and nor is Maddison. Any arguments about the squad selection are playing around at the edges of an expanded squad that, over a maximum of seven games, will see very little rotation.
The only important revelation from Southgate’s squad is just how limited England are in central defence, where the quality is so low most of them aren’t even getting first-team football in the Premier League.