Rashford, Henderson, Wharton & Quansah - why Southgate's surprising squad isn't so very radical

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Gareth Southgate has named the most surprising squad of his England tenure - has he gone radical, or is this just pragmatism in disguise?

Whatever you think about Gareth Southgate’s tenure as England manager, he’s always brought a certain sense of calm to the job. He rarely does anything wild or unpredictable, he doesn’t come up with cockamamy tactical schemes for big matches, and he sticks to the players that have served him well. No alarms, no surprises. Until now.

Watching the names that have been selected for England’s preliminary squad ahead of Euro 2024 trickle in through social media all day has been like watching your local Conservative MP suddenly announce a second career as a drag queen. Southgate, the man who never makes a sharp left turn, started doing doughnuts on his grandmother’s front drive in a souped-up Corsa. Even knowing that seven of the players named won’t make the final cut, this is a remarkably radical-looking squad from a man who seldom strays from his own script.

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Most journalists covering the squad probably thought they had the big headline from the start – Jordan Henderson was out after a season of partly self-inflicted turmoil that took him from Anfield to Riyadh to Amsterdam and out of many peoples’ good graces. In his place, Adam Wharton, the prodigiously talented Crystal Palace midfielder, would get a chance to compete for the ‘alongside Declan Rice’ spot in the final 26-man squad with Conor Gallagher and Kobbie Mainoo. Instead, wild selections suddenly started flying in from all angles, and by the time the official announcement was made, Wharton’s inclusion was barely worth a shrug.

Jarell Quansah, who has only recently made it into Liverpool’s first-team reckoning, is in. James Trafford, the young Burnley goalkeeper who was dropped in the spring in favour of Aro Murić, made the cut. Curtis Jones, a deeply under-appreciated player outside of Anfield, could earn his first caps. Jarrad Branthwaite, who didn’t get on the pitch during the spring friendlies despite being called up, made the grade anyway.

Meanwhile, old stalwarts such as Marcus Rashford and Ben Chilwell found themselves joining Henderson on the way out. Recent form may well back the decisions Southgate has made up, but he has so rarely made decisions this way before. He has always had established favourites that he trusts, with no shortage of historical justification, to play for him. Now, all of a sudden, several of them are gone.

Chilwell’s exclusion is maybe the biggest surprise. Rashford and Henderson have practically generated lobby groups pushing for them to be dropped after turbulent campaigns, but Chilwell has just been ticking over, perhaps not at his best and struggling with the odd injury, but nobody really questioned his place in the eventual 26 – save, apparently, for Southgate, who has jettisoned him despite serious concerns over Luke Shaw’s fitness. Southgate has admitted that Shaw is “up against it” and may not be ready for the tournament – so why drop his most experienced deputy, and the only other ‘natural’ left-back in the squad?

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Rashford, well, he’s had a torrid time of it, we know that, and for all that some of the comments that have been aimed at him have been made by people with astonishingly short memories – he was brilliant last season, lest we forget – he probably shouldn’t be in the England squad going by recent performances. And Henderson… well, even after extricating himself from Al-Ettifaq, he’s struggled for form and fitness at Ajax, but he probably still had enough credit in the locker to make the squad simply due to a lack of viable alternatives - at least until the kids started showing up.

England have been blessed to have some superb young players coming through at precisely the right time. Kobbie Mainoo was raved about in the scouting community before he got a game at Old Trafford, but his butterfly-like emergence into the senior side has been a marvel. Even fans of Blackburn Rovers, meanwhile, who knew precisely how good Wharton was, have been stunned by the speed with which he has adapted to life in the top flight.

Both offer control, composure, a good passing range and plenty of rock-solid defensive work. They are both callow and capable of making mistakes, but the quality is unquestionable and alongside Gallagher, who has been impressive for Chelsea despite their best efforts to sell him, England suddenly have the options available to move on from Henderson at the very moment his form has failed him. He has been a tremendous servant for England, but his time has come at last, and Mainoo and Wharton are here to gently usher him out of the door.

And a similar thing is happening at left wing, where Anthony Gordon comes in off a revelatory season for Newcastle United right when Rashford has fallen off a cliff. Meanwhile, Jack Grealish isn’t doing so hot either and there is an open question as to whether Phil Foden should play there or go through the middle in some manner. Gordon’s breakthrough could not be more perfectly timed, and has effectively taken away the necessity of taking an out-of-touch player.

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Even in defence, for those concerned about the viability of Harry Maguire and John Stones at the top level, we see Levi Colwill, Marc Guéhi, Quansah and Branthwaite slowly developing into top class defenders, ready to take over at the first sign of weakness. Really, all that Southgate needs is for a fully-fit left-back to descend from the heavens upon a staircase of celestial light directly onto the private jet that will take them to Germany. He has stuck by his guys in the past because they were good players who, even off their best form, could be relied upon to outshine the alternatives. Now, suddenly, the alternatives are proving themselves to be the better picks.

So when it boils down to it, is Southgate’s selection really all that radical? Sure, he’s taking several uncapped youngsters along for the friendlies against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iceland, but there’s a solid argument that they are – at this moment – superior to the players they’re replacing. They have demonstrated that they can play to an extremely high level. You can raise a rationally-arched eyebrow at the suddenness of one or two inclusions like Quansah and Trafford, but in truth this is a much more pragmatic squad that it feels like at first blush - and in truth, the final 26-man squad (to be finalised on 7 June after the Iceland match) will probably have a slightly less sensational look anyway.

Southgate has always been a pragmatist, he’s just found a slightly different and more experimental way to be pragmatic. Henderson is unfit and out of form, so why take him over a youngster who’s pulling trees up across the Premier League? Rashford is well off the boil, so why not take Gordon, who’s simmering? And why not take a closer look at the defenders who will be the lynchpins of the next generation, even if they don’t make the cut this time?

The only thing that doesn’t make much sense on paper is cutting Chilwell – a move which doesn’t feel very pragmatic at all with Shaw’s readiness far from assured, and that decision is less radical than strange. So perhaps we aren’t in Tory Drag Show territory after all, and maybe Southgate is still parking his sensible little car with all due care and consideration for the neighbours. He’s just doing it all with some new faces around.

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