World Cup 2018 was an important moment for English football. Just as valuable has been the past eight months, during which Gareth Southgate’s side parlayed their momentum into unlikely Nations League success; they’ll pack up the inflatable unicorns again and head to Portugal for the final tournament this summer.
But the evolution of the squad’s culture has also been a warming sub-plot: the entitlement of previous generations has been replaced by a softer, more humble set of personalities and the creation of a true meritocracy. Players who warrant a call-up receive one; those who don’t stay with their clubs. Southgate has not only succeeded in making the England squad a happier place to be, he’s also made it far more aspirational.
That’s something which must continue. Southgate will name his squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Czech Republic and Montenegro this week, and hopefully he’ll strike that same balance between loyalty and reward, further re-engaging a public which, for the first time in a generation, actually now pays attention to these announcements.
FourFourTwo had a go at second-guessing his major decisions…
Aaron Wan-Bissaka for Fabian Delph
Wan-Bissaka remains eligible for Congo, having represented the African nation at under-20 level. His decision to play for England’s under-21s is probably instructive, though, and it seems inevitable now that he’ll pledge his long-term allegiance to the country of his birth.
England remain spoilt for choice at right-full-back. As and when not required in the centre of defence, Kyle Walker remains first choice and, even though Kieran Trippier has regressed dramatically, he remains ably supported by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Further down the line, Chelsea’s Reece James has made tremendous strides at Wigan Athletic.
Wan-Bissaka is a slightly different type of player to all of them. He possesses the position’s pre-requisites – skill, speed, technique – but also the size to theoretically serve as an auxiliary centre-half at set-piece situations. A hybrid, in effect – perhaps even the player that Micah Richards was expected to become all those years ago? Wan-Bissaka doesn’t have the experience to be considered as a multi-positional player right now, but his form for Crystal Palace certainly entitles him to a chance in his natural position.
Declan Rice for Joe Gomez
Hardly a like-for-like replacement, even though Rice is a very passable centre-half. Gomez is injured and won’t be seen again for another couple of weeks at least. Under different circumstances, Rice would probably be replacing Eric Dier, whose appendectomy has left him short of form and fitness, but the range of defensive injuries will probably save him – internationally, Dier’s range of uses are extremely valuable.
With Rice, though, this is a decision to view through the abstract: If he played for a better side – not even a Manchester City or Liverpool, but a Watford or Wolves – how would he be viewed? His great enemy at the moment is West Ham’s patchy form and a midfield which, while improving, remains permanently in transition. But those are distractions from his potential, rather than genuine marks against it.
There’s a sense also that, following the hullabaloo over his nationality, Southgate has little choice but to pick Rice. To not do so would just be plain awkward. But that’s really not fair; raw though he may be, Rice is already a cultured footballer who sees and reads a game very well, and – whisper it – could potentially evolve into the type of three-dimensional holding player that England have needed for a long time.
James Maddison for Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Loftus-Cheek is a Southgate favourite, and piqued the interest with a few neat touches in Russia, but it’s difficult to make a strong case for his inclusion. Unfortunately, the Chelsea midfielder continues to be a victim of his club’s distrust of younger players, having started just once in the Premier League all season. At 23, he’s no longer young enough for that not to matter.
In fact, English football should be doing whatever it can to dissuade its young elite away from these obstructive situations. Loftus-Cheek doesn’t deserve to be used as a prohibitive example, but he remains symbolic of the cluttered pathways which continue to obstruct the development of talent in this country. In time, Chelsea’s transfer ban may be a blessing, allowing him relief from their faddy recruiting, but for the moment he remains of theoretical rather than practical worth.
And maybe Maddison is the better player? He’s different and better suited to a position higher up the field, but his strutting technical play passes the international football eye test. He plays with tremendous ego – in the healthy sense – and his combination of craft and conviction is something which England need more of. Maddison may not be an international starter of the future – he’ll probably exist internationally as an understudy to Dele Alli – but Southgate has extracted great value from that type of squad player in the past and, really, can’t have too many of them to choose from. It’s Maddison’s turn to audition for another of those Jesse Lingard roles.
Troy Deeney for Callum Wilson
Who isn’t curious about how it would look? Deeney is not a lump. He’s not just an intimidating forward who scores goals by force, but instead embodies an interesting package of skills. He’s physical, yes, and he certainly plays up to the caricature of the schoolyard bully, but beneath that gruff exterior lies a smart operator as capable of unpicking a defence as he is of ramming through it.
What’s particularly interesting is the success of his partnership with Gerard Deulofeu at Watford, which seems to depend on the old-fashioned combination of size, speed and understanding. England are not dissimilar. They may play with two mobile forwards around a pivot instead of just one, but the way Deeney leads the line makes him a natural deputy for Harry Kane and a useful foil for Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and the rest of Southgate’s little wasps.
It’s not a judgement on Callum Wilson’s efforts during the last international break, more just a recognition that he’s never likely to properly fit the picture at this level. He’s a good player, but he’s not the right one. Deeney might be better suited, though. He will turn 32 during the 2020 European Championship, making him an outcast by profile, but there’s room for someone who changes games and who, probably more importantly, wouldn’t require a dramatic change of system to be effective.
Angus Gunn for Marcus Bettinelli
Bizarrely, the last squad contained four goalkeepers. That will almost certainly be trimmed to three this time, with Jack Butland likely to drop out and Tom Heaton expected to replace Alex McCarthy.
It might be decided that Gunn’s time is better spent in the under-21s, with their European Championship in Italy approaching. If not, though, now could be a time to introduce a long-term understudy to Jordan Pickford. Maybe that’s important, too, because as England learned with Joe Hart, allowing a player to remain unchallenged and comfortable for a long period of time isn’t always healthy.
Gunn is at the beginning of his senior career having only just become Southampton’s first choice, but his size, reach and handling make his £13.5m transfer fee (paid to Manchester City last summer) look very modest indeed. On form, Heaton might just be the best English goalkeeper in the country, but including Gunn here would be a gentle knock on Pickford’s door, reminding him that there will eventually be consequences to his patchy performances for Everton.