As international football returns after its four-month hibernation, the squad announcement is just as eagerly anticipated as the matches themselves. Everyone has their own opinion, and no one wants to see their favourite players miss out on the sacred ‘call up’. Gareth Southgate has released a huge 27-man squad for this month’s ties with Holland and Italy. Let’s pick it apart.
Potentially the most controversial choice is actually the player with the most experience in the England jersey. Joe Hart has been about as regular for West Ham this season as Jack Wilshere had been for Arsenal ahead of Euro 2016. Originally dropped by the then-new manager David Moyes, Hart became an FA Cup player. Only last weekend, he handed Burnley their third and final goal on a plate with an absolute howler. Joe Hart needs to get used to the fact that he is no longer England’s number 1. The young prodigy was not the same player we see today. A great man, but not the future between the sticks. Still, Gareth Southgate feels he should be here, and with his vast experience at this level, he could be forgiven for feeling that way. Alongside Hart are Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford. Neither have been able to repeat their excellent form of last season, but both have performed well when called upon for the national team. These two are likely to battle it out for the starting berth, come the summer.
The fourth goalkeeper is one of four uncapped players in this squad. Nick Pope does not boast a wealth of top-level experience, but the Burnley man has been a superb understudy to the injured Tom Heaton this season. Pope has more clean-sheets in the Premier League this season than Pickford and Butland. Needless to say, he trumps Hart on that score too. It’s unlikely he’ll travel, but if an injury to one of the main men occurred, he would certainly be forced into contention.
England’s defence is one of the most heavily contested positions. This is not because there is a huge array of talent – more – because there isn’t. Gareth Southgate’s three-man backline plan has seen Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling considered unfavourable. History repeats itself here, as two of Roy Hodgson’s favourites have missed out once more. John Stones has been included, but has still looked far from convincing when representing an otherwise more than convincing City team this season. In Stones there is great potential, but there is nowhere near an accomplished player. Alongside him are two of the stalwarts from the battling 0-0 draws with Germany and Brazil in November. Harry Maguire and Joe Gomez played excellently in those games and deserve a recall.
Michael Keane misses out because of what has been a torrid first season at Everton. However, perhaps in his place, there is a first call up for Keane’s former Burnley teammate James Tarkowski. The 25-year-old Mancunian has played brilliantly for Burnley this season. Many were calling for his inclusion in this particular squad, and so it perhaps isn’t too much of a surprise that he’s here. England’s other centre-back inclusion is Swansea City’s Alfie Mawson. Mawson has been a regular scorer, up from the back, for Swansea in the past two seasons. A former U-21 player, he scored for England at the U-21 European Championships last year and seems to have the committed attitude that so many England centre-backs have had over the years. His playing style is not unlike Harry Maguire’s either. Southgate’s centre-backs are beginning to understand how crucial it is to be comfortable with the ball between their feet.
Southgate’s full-back choices are unsurprising. Kyle Walker has been in flying form for table-toppers Manchester City, and is one of the best right-backs in the world. Nathaniel Clyne never returned to his best after a long spell out, so Walker’s competitor in this squad is Tottenham’s replacement to Walker – Kieran Trippier. An England player since the summer, Trippier is considered to be one of the Premier League’s best crossers. He has already amassed fourteen assists in his relatively short Premier League career. On the left, Ryan Bertrand is included because of his consistent game time at Southampton, and Danny Rose has returned to decent form at Spurs. His injury looks behind him now. Full-back is not an issue for England. The Three Lions have an abundance of choices here, and it is highly unlikely that Gareth Southgate has fully made up his mind on which of them will travel.
There has been an outcry from Jordan Henderson haters everywhere since the squad’s announcement on Thursday. Criticised heavily in recent England games for being a persistent backwards passer, his Liverpool form is no different. Danny Drinkwater and Jonjo Shelvey are accomplished long passers who don’t favour their goalkeeper over a striker running in-behind. Neither have made the cut. Henderson likes to pass backwards, and if he does so over these next two games, his time may well be up. There is no place for someone constantly taking the safe option at a World Cup. He still has time to put this right, it should be said. Eric Dier has been an honest choice for England, and really does seem to value playing for his country. Southgate’s faith in him is unsurprising. Gareth Southgate’s persistent faith in Jake Livermore, however, must surely end here. Livermore has not won a Premier League game since August, and was outclassed by Beijing Guoan veteran Renato Augusto when Brazil travelled to Wembley in November.
Jack Wilshere is an unsurprising, and very refreshing, inclusion. Roy Hodgson was quite-rightly slated for picking him for Euro 2016, but since his return he has been playing in the games that matter for Arsenal and has deserved to be recalled. Should he hit peak form and fitness, he could become a mainstay in the Arsenal and England teams for at least the next few years. Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook has been in and around the England youth system since 2011 and has represented the Three Lions at every level, bar the seniors. Cook became the first England player to hold aloft the World Cup trophy since Bobby Moore in 1966, when his U-20 side were victorious in Korea last summer. Cook’s inclusion was a matter of ‘sooner or later’ – and here he is.
On a more attacking side, Jesse Lingard’s name is one that will likely be printed on a few shirts this summer. The little playmaker has outshone Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata for Manchester United this season. Then again, that isn’t saying much. Lingard’s position is likely to be sought after by Dele Alli. Also in the squad, Alli has not had the startling season he endured last time out, but has still shown glimpses of brilliance, including a double to see off Real Madrid in the Champions League. Raheem Sterling has shown his mercurial talent for Manchester City this season, and is included too, of course. To nail down a starting berth in Jürgen Klopp’s mouth-watering Liverpool side looks a monumental task, but as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has managed to do just that, he too has deserved to be recalled for England. The only other midfielder in Gareth Southgate’s squad is one that Man United fans will feel is more than justified. The consistency that Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have shown over the years for United is inspired, and Young’s substitute appearance against Brazil brought about his first England cap in four years. The former Aston Villa man is included again, and is more than capable of forcing himself into Gareth Southgate’s plans this summer.
With the juddering news that Harry Kane injured himself for Spurs at the weekend, Southgate was forced to choose a player not originally planned to be called up. The manager’s press conference confirmed that this player was Danny Welbeck. Hours after he was given the call, Welbeck put two goals past fallen giants AC Milan to confirm Arsenal’s progression in the Europa League. In Hodgson’s four years in charge of England, Danny Welbeck scored fourteen England goals. His form for his country has been remarkable, and any player able to stick away chances at the drop of a hat must be welcomed into the fray. Jamie Vardy has been outstanding for Leicester City this season, and is likely to start at least one of the upcoming prestige friendlies. The third of three forwards in Gareth Southgate’s first squad of 2018 is Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United man is only five months into his twenties, and has reached some heights of his own in recent matches – notably his double against Liverpool. Rashford will definitely be in Southgate’s summer plans. Vardy will be too.
There are some debateable exclusions however. Beyond the midfield duo of Jonjo Shelvey and Danny Drinkwater, there are Fabian Delph and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Both are injured, and Southgate has stated he would have liked both available for this double-header. Andros Townsend is perhaps harshly omitted, but Crystal Palace are hardly finding things easy of late. Daniel Sturridge is currently a lost cause, and the trio of Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all look to have emerged one tournament too early. At the other end of the field, Fraser Forster is capable but won’t be considered without also being a Southampton starter. Phil Jones is injured but likely to be in the next squad, if fit.
Overall this is a reasonably experimental squad. Southgate’s mission is not to thrash the Netherlands and Italy, but to discover his ideal eleven for the World Cup. This is an honest, capable group of players. We shall see how they fare.