Gareth Southgate has an England squad to recapture happy-ship energy
And … clear. Stage one completed. With the announcement of Gareth Southgate’s 26-man England World Cup squad safely despatched the early signs are, it has to be said, pretty good. Potential hazards appear to have been glossed or co-opted. The situation is calm. When it comes to negotiating the fraught pre-tournament void, a cursed earth of brain-shouts and rage-swirls and curdled hope, this is probably about as good as it gets.
It is one of the many roles of any modern England coach to manage also the expected rage of these occasions, to come on like an embattled community support officer policing some lawlessly enraged Friday night city centre, a place where we are at any point just one misstep from “a situation”, a pile-on.
Southgate’s job with his selection for Qatar is of course to pick his most balanced group. The enlarged 26-man squad, plus a helpful nudge from form and injuries, have pretty much done the job for him in that regard. These are his best players. The popular favourites are all included, the absence of Reece James defusing a potential Trent-bomb. The poor form of those who have been tried and found wanting – Jadon Sancho most noticeably – means James Maddison becomes an obvious feelgood pick, but also a sensible one.
And in this Southgate has lucked out to some degree. Facing down the external noises, curating the vibe, is an increasingly significant part of this process. The happy-ship energy, and a reconnection with the wider support was a key tonal point in that surprise run to the semi-finals in 2018.
He may just have done it again here. This is not to say that England have an obvious champion squad. But it is the best squad Southgate could have picked, one that on the face of it offers no space to carp or rage at talent squandered, favouritism applied.
There will be plenty of opportunities from here to introduce further notes of jeopardy, and indeed some actual in-game coaching to be done. But by picking this group with a keen eye to form, accrued loyalty and also promise in the case of Conor Gallagher and others, Southgate has effectively negotiated ground zero.
There will still be some bold attempts made to find fault. In the immediate fallout from the announcement there was a vague thrumming up through the gears for a where-is-Ivan-Toney bandwagon. One popular sport radio station, clearly disarmed in its planning by the inclusion of Maddison, switched expertly to the line that Southgate had only included him to head off the backlash. Positions are generally set on England’s manager, and unshakeably so. One anti-Gareth poster on the Guardian website recently referred to him, damningly, as “a woke dinosaur”, a masterful, all-things-to-all-men checkmate that, if it can be said to actually exist, basically leaves him with nowhere to go.
In reality there is only one question worth asking about this squad. Are they actually any good on the wider stage? At which point the wind chimes tinkle, the screen dissolves and it becomes necessary to take a dive back into the recent past, and the real jumping-off point for this group of England players.
It is almost exactly 12 years to the day since the Football Association launched The Future Game, its much-fanfared regeneration project. Given the key FA heavy hitters at the launch of this paradigm-shift were Fabio Capello, Sam Allardyce and Stuart Pearce – the future of football, right there – it has been easy to let the whole thing blur into all the other failed new dawns.
But it is a point in time that speaks to this Southgate squad. The other significant note from that era was Greg Dyke’s statement that England would set a target of winning the 2022 Qatar World Cup with this current crop of Future Game princelings, a prediction taken so literally that the FA installed an actual doomsday clock at St George’s Park counting down to that distant golden future, or as we call it now, next Sunday.
Both the clock and that target were quietly removed by the next Greg in the building, Greg Clarke. But what followed was a roll call of commissions and reports and hopeful suggestions, from pre-Brexit quotas on overseas players to glossy manuals and top-down coaching buzzwords.
And so here we are, at that promised threshold. Are Gareth’s unarguable 26 really more technical, more tactically aware, more Iberian, more obviously champs-in-waiting, as the Future Game review promised?
The answer is probably yes; although this has more to do with the uplift in coaching standards in the Premier League. Very good but not quite elite is probably the fairest verdict. Thirteen of the 26 are current Champions League players. Only 12 have won a major trophy. None are genuine world stars. But it is still the strongest squad England have had since 2006.
And this is significant for Southgate. Until now the uplift in England’s fortunes can be traced to his management. Without any great change in personnel England not only stopped being terrible, but became as good, in tournament terms, as they have ever been. This, though, is something else. Six years in, Southgate has his best tournament squad, albeit with key parts – the Kane-Sterling axis – starting to show some wear.
It offers up an intriguing set of possibilities. One of the few contentious picks, Kalvin Phillips, is there because Southgate trusts him, and because he speaks directly to the weakness in the defensive heart of the team that has driven most tournament selections to this point. And the fact is, Declan Rice, Phillips and Jude Bellingham form the first really convincing midfield England have had under Southgate, an upgrade on the exact area those fine margin tournament games have tended to be lost.
Perhaps with that three England may even play a back four and liberate other parts of the team.
There will be permutations before then, and an urge towards caution. But a first XI of Jordan Pickford in goal, Kieran Tripper, John Stones, Harry Maguire (who will play, and who is also more suited to the sedentary rhythms of England football) and Luke Shaw in defence; the Rice-Phillips-Bellingham trio, plus Southgate’s favoured front three of Kane-Sterling-Foden … this looks pretty good.
For all the talk there are very few injury absences, just the first-choice wing-backs plus some rustiness in Kyle Walker and the spectre of a pre-exhausted Kane. Stage one completed. Over to you now Gareth.