He makes it really hard for you sometimes, Gareth Southgate. All that nodding in agreement at a tournament.
Where is the tension, the discontent, the quarrels? He was back on Tuesday.
Four right-backs. Count them. Four! Completely skewed, totally unbalanced and exactly what had been advocated on these pages as early as April 2.
Throw us a bone over here, man. What’s the point of an English manager who keeps doing exactly what you want him to do? Southgate was also that man in 2018. He chose Ashley Young as left-back, excluding Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey. Check, check and check. Bats? What’s the point of bickering?
Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad for the European Championship is very difficult to argue with
Jesse Lingard may be feeling sad, but it’s hard to go to war over a blistering array of shapes between February and mid-April. Lingard scored nine goals in ten appearances for West Ham during that period, then none in his last six, as the opposition managers made special plans for him.
He also plays in the forward midfield position England are blessed with. He was supposed to be on my team, but he wasn’t necessarily expected to play. And an argument about the 26th name on the team sheet isn’t an argument at all.
Southgate went with Bukayo Saka instead. On reflection, he’s probably right. No one will die in a ditch fighting Lingard against Saka.
As for the four right-backs, that’s four times as many as Roy Hodgson chose 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 both experience and tactical versatility at the rear
Rather, here’s a manager who knows his craft, knows the extra freedom that a 26-man squad offers, and isn’t afraid to use it. They’re all in – now we can start discussing who’s playing. And the fact is, that’s not as big a task as making sure the players are at his disposal. Every right-back deserved his selection.
Reece James was one of the top performers in the Champions League final; Kyle Walker was one of the few from defeated Manchester City to come to the fore; Kieran Tripper just won the title with Atletico Madrid, where he made the LaLiga Team of the Season; Trent Alexander-Arnold excelled in the string of eight wins and two draws that propelled Liverpool to an unlikely third-place finish.
Any one of them can do the job, and Southgate can tailor their rosters to the form and conditions of the training pitch; sure, when there’s so much doubt about Harry Maguire, meaning Walker can be called up as third-mid-half.
That would then see James and Alexander-Arnold vying for a marauding fullback, with Trippier perhaps being the more conservative, stronger defensive option against a better team. In short, these are good dilemmas, interesting permutations.
Jesse Lingard (R) finished the season strong but must have no complaints about missing out
And this before looking at other positions these gifted players can occupy: left back, central midfield, center half. Jordan Henderson has not kicked a ball since the 30th minute of a game 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 on, well, right-back. What if he only picked three and got injured right away? It would be a ridiculous situation to have four of the best players in Europe in the position and then run out of bodies.
Interestingly, when Trippier first spoke about the seat competition, he didn’t mention Walker. He later changed that, but people wondered if Southgate has already explained his projected role to one of his right-backs: and it’s not back right away. Maguire is probably not fit for the first game against Croatia. Southgate is optimistic this will change, but there is no indulgence to egos here. These selections are necessary.
This England squad boasts title-winning experience and an exciting array of exuberance
Alexander-Arnold was told he was there three weeks ago. Southgate said he was moved to reassure the player amid intense speculation about his position after he was left out of most recent England matches. Southgate even spoke to him again on Monday night as stories of his exile continued to circulate.
“He was recording set pieces for us that morning,” Southgate said. ‘I really don’t know where it all comes from. Once upon a time there was a story about me. That I loved The Great British Bake Off, that I had Bake Off parties and wanted to go to the show. The only thing they got right was my age.’
It was the one moment he sounded slightly irritated.
So what about this squad? It is a strong team with tournament potential. It has a mix of title and major trophy winners – one of the perks of open competition – and young men playing without fear.
Southgate also held their ground on Tuesday afternoon regarding Trent Alexander-Arnold
“You see guys like Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish and Saka playing with freedom at the highest level and doing so well,” Trippier said. ‘You see it in training, they don’t scare anything.’
Southgate said his players were flexible. More than previous generations?
“My instinct is to say yes,” he replied. “I think of players like Paul Scholes or Paul Gascoigne, of Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton playing as fullbacks, of me in that gap between defense and midfield.
‘A lot depends on the manager. We have always had technically gifted players. Perhaps they now have a greater tactical awareness. Youth coaches now demand more from them. My generation had to wait for that to start.’
He sounded optimistic. Happy with his team, happy with his chances, happy with his four right backs. That’s how he should be.