England has right back. The best countries have footballers. If there was one message to be pulled from Gareth Southgate’s team announcement on Tuesday, it was the need to develop our thinking.
Not that this was a sermon. Southgate is too cute for that. Still, the debate surrounding the inclusion of Kyle Walker, Kieran Tripper, Reece James, and Trent Alexander-Arnold is increasingly seen as a debate about balance and positional overload, when it should be: why not?
Why wouldn’t Southgate find a place in what will eventually become a 26-strong group for four of the best footballers in the country? Why would he think of them in limited, compartmentalized roles, when they can bring so much more?
Gareth Southgate sees Trent Alexander-Arnold is not simply limited as ‘right back’
The best countries prioritize the selection of top quality players and look beyond their rank
It is Alexander-Arnold, left out of the previous England squad, who is seen here as a spare part. Speculation remains that he will be cut when this extensive, preliminary roster is phased out next week. Again, why?
Without going too far into the golden generation line, the main characteristic of the players available to Southgate is that they are more than the sum of their parts. Even Harry Kane, as purely a goalscorer as there is, also has excellent scores as a goalscorer.
Behind him are rows, plural, of midfielders who can play as forwards, forwards who can operate in the midfield, wide men comfortable in the middle, middle men happily on the flanks. They have progressed in the Premier League academies on billiard courts and have worked with coaches who especially value technique and hunger.
England’s first opponents are Croatia and it was in Zagreb in 2006 that Ashley Cole, a brilliant international footballer, looked all the way to the sea when Steve McClaren asked him to act as a left-back.
That wouldn’t happen with Southgate’s right-back quartet – nor with Luke Shaw or Ben Chilwell on the left. But when Southgate talked about options, about versatility, he wasn’t talking about switching between systems while essentially retaining the same role.
The Liverpool star has incredible technical prowess and offers Southgate plenty of options
He meant Walker went to the center, Trippier to left back, James and Alexander-Arnold to midfield. He was talking about picking a team of footballers, as Pep Guardiola sees his selections at Manchester City, the famous 11 midfielders that are his dream.
“I don’t see it as an imbalance to have four right backs,” Southgate argued. ‘We could play three in the back in one game and one as a fullback and the other as the right centercourt.
“We could play one right back, one left back; we could play one in midfield depending on the injury. They are good footballers who deserve to be part of the selection. They are better than some of the other options we have in those alternative positions.
There is no doubt that Trent could play in midfield, for example. That’s how he got through at Liverpool academy, but the trouble is he hasn’t had a chance to do so since then. But he is still a passer of the ball, with great vision. He’s a playmaker of today.
So why wouldn’t that lend itself to being in midfield at some point? Likewise, Jurgen Klopp is getting fantastic performances from him in the role he has, so why would he even think about changing that? Likewise, Reece James played in midfield for Wigan and I was there when he recently moved 35 minutes into that position for Chelsea with no problem.
Reece James is another selected right back, but Southgate noted that he can play in midfield
‘These guys are excellent footballers. They can come under pressure, find passes, score goals, they are modern, flexible players and very exciting. ‘
He added: ‘So it’s not that easy when everyone is fit Trent misses. I know everyone sees four right backs, but I think all these players have a lot more. We are preparing for nine matches, including the friendly matches. We need versatility, we need competition for places, we are still unclear about certain injuries.
Trent has a fight. People seem to think that I don’t think Trent is a good footballer. That is not the case. I have felt the need to communicate more with him than with other players for the past few months when his performance has been very good.
“People don’t know about this, but it’s to Trent’s credit for keeping it to himself. He is a very good footballer, there has never been any doubt. We go from there. ‘
Southgate’s reluctance to state exactly why Alexander-Arnold didn’t cut last time stems from an unfortunate experience with Chris Smalling three years ago.
Southgate explained why Smalling had been left out of the squad and talked about wanting to play from the back and that Harry Maguire and John Stones were better suited to the tactic. “I went into more depth about coaching and it ended with Chris getting a shellacking,” Southgate explained. “So I’m never going to do that again.”
Southgate admits to disclosing too much in previous roster announcements
Southgate isn’t a fan of UEFA’s 26-man squad – too hard to please everyone – but it does have one advantage. Rather than having to strictly adhere to making plans around team form, it gives coaches the freedom to indulge in pure talent.
It would certainly seem strange if a player with Alexander-Arnold’s skill couldn’t make it to the last 26. For once, managers have the space to choose the best players, rather than the ones that best fit the available spaces.
“At 23, there are utility decisions, complicated decisions,” Southgate added. ‘I think that’s really part of the challenge, not just being able to push everyone in. In many ways, the challenge this time comes with keeping fifteen happy, which will be impossible.
‘The dynamics of the group must be England first, the name on the shirt afterwards. We could really fall if we don’t do that right. They are derailed teams in the past, where those who didn’t play drain energy from the others.
Jude Bellingham and the other youngsters on the squad will be hungry to play
‘I’ve seen it with England, and with other countries too. We have to make sure everyone gets away to learn, improve and enjoy the experience with their friends. I left the World Cup in Japan in 2002 without kicking a ball, but I felt like I had played a part for the team.
‘I had put in strong opposition to the forwards, I had made sure Martin Keown didn’t kick them when he got the bump. You have to focus on more than just the games. They are young players, they are ambitious, they want to play, they are used to playing. We have to deal with that emotionally intelligently. ‘
Yet Southgate’s problems are also unique. In addition to injuries, he will have 12 players involved in two European finals over the next four days. He can’t even get an update on Maguire with Manchester United locked up and laser-focused in Gdansk.
Other situations are also not what they seem. Jack Grealish has returned to the Aston Villa team, but Southgate revealed he is not ready for tournaments. “It’s not that Grealish is in doubt, it’s how much he can carry,” he said.
Jack Grealish’s condition remains a concern and Southgate is keeping an eye on him
‘He is unable to train consecutive days and he has not had a high training load in those competitions. This entails a risk. It’s great that he got onto the field, but in some ways Jordan Henderson may have more miles under the hood even though he hasn’t played.
‘We don’t want to break the players. I don’t see Jack as an injury doubt – more of where we can get to within two weeks in terms of 90 minutes, 90 minutes, 90 minutes. We risk breaking it. It was an overuse injury. We can’t overload him again. We have to manage it correctly. ‘
We will know more about this in two weeks. For now, England has a young, positive team and a young, positive manager. And they have soccer players. Make the most of this – it wasn’t always like this.