He makes it very hard for you sometimes, Gareth Southgate. All that nodding in agreement going into a tournament.
Where’s the tension, the disgruntlement, the rows? He was at it again on Tuesday.
Four right backs. Count them. Four! Completely lop-sided, totally imbalanced and exactly what had been advocated on these pages as far back as April 2.
Throw us a bone here, man. What’s the point in an England manager who keeps doing exactly what you want him to do? Southgate was that man in 2018, too. Picked Ashley Young at left back, left out Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey. Check, check and check. Quibbles? What’s the point in having quibbles?
Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad for the European Championship is very hard to argue with
Jesse Lingard may feel hard done by but it’s hard to go to war over a blistering run of form between February and mid-April. Lingard scored nine goals in 10 games for West Ham in that period, then none in his final six as opposition managers made special plans for him.
He also plays in the forward midfield position in which England are blessed. He’d be in my squad but not necessarily expected to play. And an argument about the 26th name on the teamsheet isn’t much of an argument at all.
Southgate went with Bukayo Saka instead. On reflection, he’s probably right. Nobody will die in a ditch fighting Lingard versus Saka.
As for the four right backs, that’s four times as many as Roy Hodgson picked for the 2014 World Cup — Glen Johnson, number one in a field of one — but Southgate has not lost his mind.
Southgate went with both of his young right backs in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James
Kyle Walker (L) and Kieran Trippier (R) offer experience as well as tactical versatility at the back
Rather, here is a manager who knows his stuff, knows the additional freedom a 26-man squad affords and is not afraid to use it. They’re all in — now we can begin debating who plays. And the fact is, that is not as big a call as making sure the players are at his disposal. Every right back merited his selection.
Reece James was one of the best performers at the Champions League final; Kyle Walker one of the few from beaten Manchester City who emerged in credit; Kieran Tripper has just won the title with Atletico Madrid where he made the LaLiga team of the season; Trent Alexander-Arnold excelled in the sequence of eight wins and two draws that propelled Liverpool to an unlikely third place.
Any of them can do the job, and Southgate can tailor his selections to training ground form and circumstances; certainly, when there is so much doubt over Harry Maguire, meaning Walker may be called upon to be a third centre half.
That would then leave James and Alexander-Arnold vying for a marauding wing-back role, with Trippier perhaps the more conservative, stronger defensive option against a better team. Bottom line, these are good dilemmas, interesting permutations.
Jesse Lingard (R) ended the season strongly but should have no complaints about missing out
And this before we consider other positions these gifted players can cover: left back, central midfield, centre half. Jordan Henderson hasn’t kicked a ball since the 30th minute of a match with Everton on February 20. What if he doesn’t make it?
Southgate could end up with one right back in central defence, another in central midfield and a third at, well, right back. What if he picked only three and that right back then got injured? It would be a preposterous situation to have four of the best players in Europe in the position and then end up running out of bodies.
It was interesting that when Trippier first talked about the competition for places he made no mention of Walker. He later amended that, but one wondered whether Southgate has already explained his projected role to one of his right backs: and it isn’t right back. Maguire is unlikely to be fit for the first game against Croatia. Southgate is optimistic that will change but there is no indulgence of egos here. These selections are necessary.
This England squad boasts title-winning experience as well as an exciting array of exuberance
Alexander-Arnold was told three weeks ago that he was in. Southgate said he felt moved to reassure the player due to intense speculation about his position, having been left out of the most recent England matches. Southgate even spoke to him again on Monday night as stories of his exile continued to circulate.
‘He was taking set-pieces for us that morning,’ Southgate said. ‘I really don’t know where it all came from. There was a story about me once. That I loved The Great British Bake Off, that I had Bake Off parties and wanted to go on the show. The only thing they got right was my age.’
It was the one moment he sounded mildly irritated.
So what of this squad? It’s a strong squad with tournament potential. It has a blend of title and major trophy winners — one of the benefits of an open league — and young men who play without fear.
Southgate also stood his ground regarding Trent Alexander-Arnold on Tuesday afternoon
‘You see guys like Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish, Saka playing with freedom at the highest level and doing it so well,’ said Trippier. ‘You see it in training, they’re not fazed by anything.’
Southgate said his players were adaptable. More so than previous generations?
‘My instinct is to say yes,’ he replied. ‘Then I think of players like Paul Scholes or Paul Gascoigne, of Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton playing as wingbacks, me in that gap between defence and midfield.
‘A lot depends on the manager. We’ve always had technically gifted players. Maybe what they have now is greater tactical awareness. Youth coaches ask more of them now. My generation had to wait before that began.’
He sounded optimistic. Happy with his squad, happy with his chances, happy with his four right backs. So he should be.