by Dom Smith
Fabio Capello used to pick players on form. He made that abundantly clear during his four years in charge of the national team — he frankly never shut up about it. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, his right-wing options were more than plentiful. His way to choose between David Beckham, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Theo Walcott, James Milner, Stewart Downing and Aaron Lennon was simple: who is the form player?
Form is one of the most obvious factors to consider when a manager selects a team. That’s hardly rocket science. In-form players are by their very nature likely to perform well in the next match.
However, Gareth Southgate’s England World Cup squad would be an eclectic group of Football Hipsters’ favourites and FPL bargains if he had gone down the same path as the Italian disciplinarian.
The blunt fact of the matter is that precious few of England’s best footballers were in good form ahead of Qatar. Jordan Pickford, Marcus Rashford, Callum Wilson, Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham were. And Bukayo Saka and James Maddison were in even better nick. But that’s seven members of a 26-strong squad. The England boss was hardly batting good options away.Embed from Getty Images
Southgate couldn’t select players on form. If he had done, the players he selected would not have been of international quality. The England manager instead picked players based partly on form, but largely based on what they have done for him in the past.
Critics of the 52-year-old will say he took this too far. Harry Maguire has been in wretched form since Euro 2020, losing his place at Manchester United despite being club captain. He’s started just three of their 19 league games so far this term. Kalvin Phillips has only just returned to fitness after 54 minutes of Premier League game time since signing for Manchester City in the summer. Just like before the Euros, Raheem Sterling came into the tournament struggling for goals and form at his club side, Chelsea.
However, England’s best performers at the European Championships were Sterling and Jordan Pickford — both of whom finished their club seasons in iffy form. In some ways, the England camp has shown itself to be a safe haven for those whose club careers are more turbulent. Other than against Germany in the 3–3 draw in September, Maguire has played well for England during his woes at United — showing he can lift his levels when he feels more comfortable and less under a harsh spotlight.
That showed again as he was excellent at bringing the ball out from defence in the 6–2 win over Iran on Monday. He was also familiarly dominant in the air, striking the post with one header before assisting Bukayo Saka’s first goal with another.Embed from Getty Images
Sterling also looked unshackled and freed. It is common knowledge that he prefers playing in a 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, but he has been excellent for Southgate’s England even when they have adopted the latter. Here, away from Chelsea — as well as playing in the 4-3-3 system he learned to love at City — Sterling was able to play his natural, roaming game. He scored his first World Cup goal as a result, and what a goal it was.
It is a tremendous compliment to Southgate and his coaching staff that the England camp now fulfils the antithesis of the role it played for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. It is no longer a distraction, a pressure-filled cauldron. It is a holiday camp that the players look forward as well as a catalyst for elite sporting performance.
Use of players like Maguire and Sterling does not feel like the gamble that it might be for other teams. For England, these are trusted players who have a deep enough understanding for the fabric and the playing style of this team to ensure it wasn’t of grave concern if they headed into the tournament out of form.
The ingredients within the England camp enable strong form to help but ropey form not to hamper the team’s performance levels. Yes, it’s highly likely that England do not win this World Cup. But it is to England’s credit that it is not a gamble to start a club captain who is warming the bench and receiving more social media abuse than any other sports star in the world bar Cristiano Ronaldo.
Capello needed to pick players on form because he hadn’t established a positive environment in which players could flourish irrespective of club performances. Southgate does not suffer the same constraint. Good for him, and good for England.