Controversial Man Utd and Chelsea calls in latest England squad - but is it Gareth Southgate's swan song?
The England squad set to face Malta and North Macedonia doesn't contain any potential debutants - but is that a good thing or a bad thing?
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Another international break looms, another England squad has been announced and, as sure as night follows day and a tabloid journalist follows Marcus Rashford, there are absolutely no surprises. Harry Maguire is still in, Raheem Sterling is still out. You may dislike the individual decisions, but the blunt fact is that England have been ruthlessly efficient in recent qualification campaigns and will, most likely, make short work of Malta and North Macedonia next week. Gareth Southgate knows what he's doing.
The squad laid out before us this afternoon is, essentially, the squad that will travel to the European Championships in Germany next summer. The consistency of Southgate's selections makes that abundantly clear. There will be room for a few of the injured players - Luke Shaw, Ben Chilwell and Reece James will all make the squad if fit - and it's possible that Ivan Toney returns, but the core group is right in front of us. Southgate's only remaining decisions are in the details - whether he takes Ollie Watkins or Callum Wilson by way of a back-up striker, for instance.
All of which makes the selection for the final two qualifiers broadly fine. Southgate's England win a lot more often than they lose and this squad, regardless of any perceived flaws surrounding the inclusion of Maguire or Jordan Henderson or Kalvin Phillips, is one of the best international sides in the world. It has proven itself time and again over the past few years, including by beating Italy home and away in this qualification campaign.
So, what's the problem? Well... there isn't really a problem with the squad itself, but there is a concern with the Plan B, or rather the lack of one, and specifically with the lack of a single potential debutant within the squad. The question, at this point, isn't whether Henderson should be in the squad, because he will be, but who replaces him if he is injured, say. It's also a question of succession planning - Henderson is unlikely to remain in the England squad for any length of time once the coming German adventure has been completed, and his heir is anything but apparent.
Curtis Jones has become a regular under Jürgen Klopp. Rico Lewis is slowly forcing his way into Pep Guardiola's plans with a series of highly impressive outings for Manchester City. Either could be a worthy replacement if Henderson hurts himself or simply retires - but Southgate won't necessarily know which he should play in that instance, because he won't call either up to his squads even when the opposition in prospect should be easy meat.
In Southgate's defence, seeding for Euro 2024 will be determined partly by these results. Hopefully he knows in his heart that England would beat Malta without a full-strength side, but North Macedonia are a better team than was suggested by the 7-0 trouncing they took at Wembley back in June. Just ask an Italian about them. It's hardly unreasonable to put out strong sides, both as a mark of respect for the opposition and respect towards the situation. England could still do with winning these games to make sure they don't find themselves in a pool with France or Germany, a fate which is worth working a little harder to avoid.
But there is surely room for a little more experimentation. Since this qualifying campaign began back in March, Southgate has blooded just four new debutants - Toney, Levi Colwill, Eberechi Eze and Eddie Nketiah. There have been chances to call up other, often younger players, even if there was no intention of taking them to the Euros barring injury - Southgate could still have found out more about Jones or Lewis, their characters and capabilities, just by having them around training. Once Malta and North Macedonia are out of the way, there are just two games before the squad is chosen for Euro 2024 - friendlies against Brazil and Belgium in March. If fresh blood is suddenly required, the window of opportunity for a proper look at new players is very narrow.
Perhaps this is all a little unfair on Southgate. He's been in the game long enough to know both his mind and his methods, and he may well feel that he doesn't need all that much time with a player to know if they'll do the job required. He may well be correct in that assessment, too. But it's hard not to worry that this is less of a function of a manager who is supremely confident in his plans, and more of a manager who doesn't expect to be around to worry about what comes after the Euros.
There has been constant speculation that Southgate expects this to be his last tournament as England manager. It took a certain amount of arm-twisting to get him to stay on after the World Cup in Qatar, and few pundits think that The FA will be able to persuade him to continue once his contract expires in July. It may be that what we are witnessing isn't a manager who has made his mind up and isn't for turning, and more a manager who has lost interest in succession planning, presumably because he knows what's coming.
For context, the four new England caps handed out in 2023 is the fewest since Southgate took charge of the Three Lions. In 2022, there were five new boys, eight in 2021 and in 2020 it was twelve. The numbers make it all look a lot like a a manager who is spending less and less time concerning himself with what comes next, perhaps because he knows it will be someone else's job to worry about it.
Which is fine, more or less, so long as the current crop stays fit and sharp for next summer. Whoever succeeds Southgate, whenever that happens, will have plenty of time to make their own mind up about who should be in their squads. But let's just hope it doesn't come back to bite England this summer, even if the bite is unlikely to be all that deep should it happen at all. More importantly, let's hope that Southgate decides to take one more tour of duty once the Euros are done - because England will most likely be much poorer without him.