The summer memories and autumn honeymoon of 2018 have started to fade now. Sport moves on. England must move on. Their next mission: securing qualification for UEFA Euro 2020, where they could play much of the tournament at Wembley. The Road to the European Championships begins, in just over a week, with a tricky home qualifier against the Czechs. Then, three days later, Gareth Southgate’s team will travel to Montenegro. But for the England manager, the first task to tackle was picking a squad for these crucial first obstacles on the journey. It’s a squad of minimal newbies and many happy returns.
We’ll start between the sticks. Despite handing a belated international debut to Alex McCarthy in the last international break, there is no re-call for the Saints keeper. Neither, despite many calls for him to come in, is there a first call-up for his club teammate Angus Gunn. The former Norwich City academy prospect has recently dislodged McCarthy to become Southampton’s Premier League Number One. At just 23 years of age, he’s got plenty of time to force his way in…although not if Scotland’s reported courting of him begins to convince him to do the old switcheroo – yes, we’ll get to that.
Despite erratic recent form for his club side Everton, Jordan Pickford has inevitably returned to the England squad. Southgate explained in his press conference on Wednesday that all players have better and worse games, and that Pickford has invariably been excellent for England. That is true, his dips in form have so far not affected his international career. Southgate has kept similar faith with Jack Butland, still playing in the Championship, still conceding too many goals, but still a very good goalkeeper.
The highly anticipated and highly deserved return in goal is that of Burnley’s Tom Heaton. His lengthy periods on the side-line are over, and he has moved ahead of Joe Hart to become Burnley’s new Number One. A brilliant performer in the Premier League over the past couple of months, Heaton would totally merit a fourth England cap this month. These are March’s three England goalies.
At centre-half, Harry Maguire has returned to the England squad too; he was unable to meet up with the November squad through injury. Maguire’s recent form has been slightly below-par, but England’s World Cup quarter-final match was evidence enough that he should be part of Southgate’s plans for years to come. Joe Gomez, who deputised for him so well in that revengeful win over Croatia, misses out himself here with his own fitness woes. John Stones is back from injury and makes an appearance, whilst James Tarkowski and Michael Keane have been called-up too – both having enjoyed good form with Burnley and Everton, respectively, in the past months. Wolves’ Conor Coady and Brighton’s Lewis Dunk are left out. England’s centre-backs for their ties with the Czech Republic and Montenegro are Keane, Maguire, Stones and Tarkowski.
At right-back, Gareth Southgate casts envy on all his rivals. No national manager has as extensive a range of right-sided fullbacks. The first, alphabetically at least, is Liverpool’s young star Trent Alexander-Arnold. Even he has been hit by this recent injury epidemic, but the 20-year-old is back in time to compete with Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier [ both also called up] for a starting place at Wembley on the 22nd. Trippier has endured a tough season for two reasons – his form has dipped and so has his fitness. England fans across the globe know just how good he is though, and he has made the cut. Walker has been inconsistent too, but on his day is one of the most athletic and physical fullbacks in Europe.
With Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Kyle Walker-Peters considered too – both very close to the England squad as two more young and ever-so-promising right-backs – there is quite a drop-off in quality when England’s left-backs are considered. And yet, perhaps on form alone, it has been the lefties that have fared best this season. Ben Chilwell and Danny Rose have enjoyed outstanding campaigns at Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, while Luke Shaw has been gradually rediscovering the kind of form that saw him called-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when he travelled as an 18-year-old at the expense of 107-cap Ashley Cole. Ryan Bertrand and Ashley Young have been so good for England but seem players of the past now. Even on the left, competition has ramped up hugely since last year’s Summer of Love.
In defensive midfield, Gareth Southgate has kept faith with two of the favourites at St George’s Park – Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph. To describe the latter as a periodic player in the Manchester City squad would almost be flattering – highlighted by his 18-minute cameo with City already 5-0 up in the Champions League on Tuesday. But Southgate was clear to defend Delph – stating that he was England’s best performer in their last game – a 2-1 Nations League win over Croatia. For Henderson, though, the joy at being selected may have been short-lived. That niggling ankle injury resurfaced again during Liverpool’s European tie with Bayern on Wednesday. He might stick with it, he might drop out or he might be replaced.
Tottenham’s Eric Dier is in there too, but the headline for this squad is the inclusion of 20-year-old West Ham star Declan Rice. His changing of allegiance from Ireland to England has been a well-documented saga, but both Ireland [who he represented in three international friendlies] and England have had nothing but positive words to say on his footballing ability. Three months after Mick McCarthy stated that he would build the team around Rice, there is now a chance we might see him make his England debut in the coming days. What a crazy turnaround it has been.
There is no inclusion for an injured Harry Winks, nor for James Ward-Prowse who has been excellent for Southampton since Ralph Hasenhüttl became head coach in early December. Nathaniel Chalobah and Lewis Cook miss out as well, with this international break coming a little too early for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to get a look-in.
A little further up the field, England’s attacking midfielders will also have felt increased competition since the World Cup. The emergence of young prodigies like Mason Mount, Phil Foden, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes will inevitably mean England’s squads from here on will include only the crème de la crème of English playmakers. All four mentioned above must still wait their turn though, as Dele Alli, Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were the ones to receive that all-important text message from someone-or-other at The FA.
Jesse Lingard has been kept at Manchester United, as it has been suggested he won’t recover to full fitness in time for the Czech game, whilst Adam Lallana has been on the fringes of an admittedly really competitive Liverpool midfield a little too much to truly warrant a call-up. Perhaps we have already seen him play his final match for England? If that is true, he can blame his injuries, for his attitude and drive has been outstanding [likewise Oxlade-Chamberlain].
England’s talisman Harry Kane has been in great form since his return to first-team action last month, even if his team have been wavering desperately at times. The forward has four goals in his last five Spurs games and 46% of the England goals in this squad are his. He is recalled of course, as is the scintillating Raheem Sterling – arguably England’s best player on current form.
Marcus Rashford will feel like a big-game player once more, with his form soaring through the Old Trafford roof amidst the Ole Gunnar Solskjær renaissance. Rashford is joined in the squad by Borussia Dortmund’s teen Jadon Sancho and Bournemouth forward Callum Wilson. Both are having excellent seasons; both had goal-involvements in November’s 3-0 win over the United States. Young strikers Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke don’t get a look in. Even the forward-line is getting more competitive.
That’s it. These are the 25 men that will represent England over the next fortnight. It is very much a squad of experience, plus Declan Rice. England’s first qualifier is a 7:45pm kick-off at Wembley, on Friday 22nd March against the Czech Republic – ranked 44th in the world. Then on Monday 25th March, England will be kicking off at the same time, but in the Podgorica City Stadium, where renovations have been taking place. For this reason, England fans’ ticket allocation was low, and many every-gamers have been unable to get their hands on one. Their opponents will be Montenegro, the world’s 46th best side. These could both be tricky ties, but Gareth Southgate and England will do all they can to claim maximum points from these – the first two qualifiers on the Road to UEFA Euro 2020.