Why Does Gareth Southgate Keep Picking Unpopular Players?

Footballers are blamed for many things. Usually, playing isn’t one of them. For Mason Mount though, this is his cardinal sin. As it turned out, people didn’t want to see the 21-year-old pressing the defences of Belgium and Denmark last month. They wanted to see the enigmatic 25-year-old Jack Grealish in the starting line-ups for those games instead. Only one individual received more online abuse for such selections than Mount himself. That person, of course, was the man who had picked him ahead of Grealish, Gareth Southgate.

Did criticism abate once Mount had scored the winner against the world’s best side, the Belgians? What, seriously? Far from it.

The England manager has shown in his four-year tenure that he isn’t afraid to drop highly esteemed players with big personalities. In both March and May 2017, Southgate left Wayne Rooney out of his squads to face the likes of Germany and France. He stated that the Manchester United legend wasn’t performing at a level high enough to warrant the call-up. Big call; fair enough.

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The same happened to Joe Hart, trusted during his shoddy loan spell at Torino when England had few men to challenge him but dropped once the first true contender came to the fore. In late 2017, in came Jordan Pickford — a young man who had just made a big-money move to Everton after losing each week at a doomed Sunderland, but making some quite extraordinary saves in those games, nonetheless. Pickford retains the No 1 shirt to this day. Hart has never been given another chance.

So, does Southgate just not really do loyalty? Well, it must be noted that he has shown tremendous faith in those who helped him to a World Cup semi-final in the two years since. Often, these players have been selected at the expense of others in much better form in the Premier League.

Harry Maguire, Dele Alli and John Stones have all received high numbers of caps since the finals. All three have fallen victim to poor periods of form in that time, too. Devotion has also been shown to some who represented him so well in his previous role as U21s manager. James Ward-Prowse, Michael Keane and Jesse Lingard would be three capable yet perhaps uninspiring players who exemplify such an allegiance. That does look an awful lot like loyalty.

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This is a legitimate criticism of Southgate. England’s talent pool has overflowed quite dramatically since Russia. The players coming through are young and hungry individuals whose playing styles are richer than those available to Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello and most of those who came before them. Southgate is blooding them slowly, but offering 15 minutes here and another nine there doesn’t count. He must trust them in games that matter. Those are the nights on which you learn so much as a young player.

Another man worth looking at in particular is Kieran Trippier. His displays for Atlético Madrid have generally been very good, but fans have been crying out to see Trent Alexander-Arnold shown long-term faith out wide on the right for quite some time now. He looks world class for Liverpool. However, for the Three Lions his performances have been defensively suspect. His attacking product has been much lower, too. Reece James, Kyle Walker and Trippier have all looked more balanced, whether that be at right-back in a 4-3-3 or at right wing-back under the current 3-4-3 system. In his 12 caps for England to date, Alexander-Arnold has only contributed one goal and one assist. He’s looked an England international — there’s no doubt about that — but his awe-inspiring exploits in Merseyside have rarely translated to the international stage.

But there is one position where Southgate’s selections have earned him the brunt of his social media brickbats. It’s an area England managers have had to field questions on for decades — the centre of midfield. In a 4-3-3 system, the feeling was that two defence-minded ‘sitters’ and one creative talent was cautious overkill. How can he choose both Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice, and yet only one of James Maddison, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jesse Lingard, Mason Mount, Dele Alli and James Ward-Prowse?

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Under the newly adopted formation of 3-4-3 though, Southgate lost the ability to pick any of those attacking midfield operators. One No 8 and one No 4 would be needed in order to secure defensive discipline and any sense of shape in the middle of the park. The reason to make such a controversial decision was to sure up the defence. England’s defence had been leaky with what was effectively a back-five at the World Cup, so Southgate knew things were unlikely to improve if the 4-3-3 was kept for the Euro finals next summer. It had worked so well against European minnows in qualifying, but the tournament itself would — and will — offer a distinctly more exacting task.

All of these factors boil down to the same single point at a base level. Gareth Southgate is not a Fantasy Football manager, setting up a backline exclusively of full-backs and flooding the front three positions with out-and-out No 9s. He coaches a genuine football team — a real-life side that hope to challenge for real-life silverware. The defensive midfielder, the last-ditch centre-back and the goalkeeper with superb distribution are all ignored by Fantasy Football.

But while these players might not pick up many points on your mobile phone app, they will do in real-life matches of real-life football. Jack Grealish may end up being a pivotal cog in Southgate’s machine, but his tactical discipline is inferior to Mount’s. The Aston Villa player has raw ability unlike any other player at the manager’s disposal, but it was Mount’s committed pressing and his positional sixth sense that allowed for his goal against Belgium.

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Grealish probably is better than Mount, but he’s also four years older and he’s individualistic in a way that Southgate wants his players to be team-orientated. Southgate’s job is to put together a functional side capable of challenging for the FIFA World Cup. It isn’t to play his best 11 players in a naïve formation and hope that they do the business.

Sorry Villa fans but Southgate’s primary responsibility is to pick up results, not to select your captain, come what may.

Header Photo: Getty Images

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