If you’re reading this, which, I guess you must be, then it’s highly likely you’re a sports fan. Let’s take that as a given. The most wonderfully infectious thing about sport, is that it is, quite literally, drama unfolding before our very eyes. No-one could have predicted Levante’s 5-4 victory over the nearly-invincibles of Barcelona this week; nor Japan’s victory over South Africa at Rugby World Cup 2015; nor Goran Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon triumph of 2001. Sport throws up shocks every day of every week, somewhere around the world. And not just on the pitch, or court, or track.
FIFA World Cup squads spark heated debate and wild speculation, but it is the sheer speed at which the favourites to travel make way for late bloomers that seems to make predicting these lists such an utter nightmare. It seemed as though Joe Hart and Ryan Bertrand would be certain picks for the World Cup a few months ago, but today Gareth Southgate admitted his faith was in other players.
The England manager is preparing to take The Three Lions to a tournament for the first time. One may have assumed that he would play safe, but it clear that Gareth Southgate is championing a certain clear message – all of my team need to be players, not just those in attack. His World Cup choices are based on players being in peak form and fitness, so Jack Wilshere, Adam Lallana, and tournament-veteran Joe Hart have all missed out.
In goal, Southgate has picked his three goalkeepers with the most game-time and form this season. Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford have had shaky and, often, suicidal defences in front of them this season, but both have performed well enough for Stoke and Everton, respectively, to merit unsurprising call-ups. The player that joins them is Nick Pope – given no backing to replace injured Tom Heaton at the beginning of the season, but given plenty of praise at the end of it. Jack Butland’s save tally is the only statistic in which Pope does not beat the two already mentioned. Pope is unlikely to feature, but his presence is totally justified. Sorry Joe, you needed to fight a little harder.
At centre-back, the only really surprising decision is the inclusion of Gary Cahill of Chelsea. The defender has been deemed nothing like good enough to be a regular starter under Conte, and frankly Southgate too. But his tournament experience, and very recent return to form, have made his call-up at least a little understandable. Phil Jones had an excellent start to the season, and having returned to fitness after a recent injury, is an expected call-up. Included too are John Stones and Harry Maguire who have both shown how capable they are at travelling forward with the ball this season. Gareth Southgate encourages that religiously, and feels he has seen it in both of these youngsters.
Ryan Bertrand’s loss is Ashley Young’s gain, at full-back. His superb form at Manchester United has made his World Cup dream, finally, a reality, at the ripe old age of 32. Danny Rose and Kyle Walker are inevitable inclusions, as, apart from his recent injury, is Kieran Trippier. The real surprise of the squad does come at right-back however. Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Liverpool apprentice of 19 years, has been bravely selected, having sparkled as an assistance to Klopp’s attacking players this season. The teenager still lives at home with his mother, but has been a delight to watch this season, as he tussles with Europe’s best in the Champions League.
Jordan Henderson is the player hoping to hold that trophy aloft in a fortnight. He dreams of doing the same with the World Cup, too. The Liverpool man is in, as is the ever-dependable Eric Dier of Tottenham. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s dazzling form at Crystal Palace, under former England boss Roy Hodgson, has earned him a first World Cup call, and Pep Guardiola’s faith in Fabian Delph has helped the nine-cap man earn a recall too. Jonjo Shelvey’s omission is perhaps a disappointment. The Newcastle man gives everything, each time he takes to the pitch, and has the vision to pick out the sort of pass needed to unlock a banked-in defence, like Panama or Tunisia’s are likely to be. Discipline is what has let him down.
Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were always easy choices in attacking-midfield, whilst Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling have had great seasons at the two Manchester clubs. Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane were having a Messi v Ronaldo-style duel this weekend and are both in sizzling form as we reach the most vital stage of their seasons. Danny Welbeck’s inclusion has gained its many critics, but his record for The Three Lions is outstanding. He has more England goals than any other player in the squad. His chances have been few and far between for Arsenal this season, but when he has been called upon, his goals have been welcomed greatly by Arsene Wenger, especially in the Europa League.
So, there it is. Gareth Southgate made some good inclusions – Nick Pope and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and some good omissions – injury-plagued Jack Wilshere, and Championship player Jake Livermore.
England’s starting XI against Tunisia in 790 hours will be as good as the England manager can make it, and that will have to do. England’s 23 best players [supposedly], have been called into prominence. England fans must wait to see if what they achieve next month is prominent. To them, we say “Good luck, train hard, and bring it home – if you can”.