Are England victims of their own success?
This is a conservative England squad. Not, y’know, Tories. It’s just a safe squad with no real shocks. There are only six changes from this summer’s World Cup, the vast majority of which were necessitated either by injury (Sterling and Pope) or retirement (Cahill, Vardy and Young – albeit the latter might not have been entirely voluntary). The other change sees Joe Gomez return to the spot he would almost certainly have occupied in the summer had he not been injured.
It means we won’t see any of England’s “auf wiedersehen pet” generation (more on them later) or even some of the youngsters who’ve stayed at home. Southgate has said in the past he will only pick players who are regulars for their clubs. But that defence doesn’t quite stack up here, as he picked Welbeck and (until he pulled out with an injury) Lallana who have a combined 25 minutes for their clubs this season.
But maybe Southgate feels that too much change would rock the boat now? Ultimately, that might be true, but he has to weigh that risk against what happens if the boat just floats aimlessly, carried by the tides.
The problem is that the players he’s picked won’t rock the boat, but they won’t tell us anything either. The only player who can hope to make a debut, Southampton’s Alex McCarthy, at twenty-eight is unlikely to have a huge impact on Jordan Pickford’s starting spot now or in the future. Despite the team’s relative success this summer, they still ultimately lost.
Southgate, and England, must continue to evolve. Two areas in particular stand out - a replacement for Sterling’s running in behind and a midfield change which will help England keep the ball and beat the press. It could also be argued that Rashford’s ineffectiveness means England might need to look for other options in that department.
Solutions to this problem could include Damarai Gray (336 minutes, 1 goal) at Leicester or Ademola Lookman (33 minutes) at Everton, both of whom have played more minutes than Lallana and Wellbeck combined. As for a midfield option then the name that jumps out is surely Phil Foden, who has yes, has only played 8 minutes – and that at the end of a 6-1 rout. But how do we rate a minute for City compared to an Arsenal one – surely a minute in the best team in the country is worth at least three on the Emirates turf? Regardless, neither of these issues were addressed in this squad. And as for Rashford, a certain Jadon Sancho hasn't yet had the kind of game time he saw last season, but he's still played 24 minutes off the bench and... yeah, well you get the idea now.
So, why was this squad so conservative? A reward for a summer well played? Maybe. But it’s also more than possible that the UEFA nations league might have come at the worst possible time for England. Fans hated friendlies, but they served a purpose for managers. They were games with lower stakes where managers could experiment without their job on the line in the event of a defeat. Crucially, though, had England had a poor World Cup, fans might still have seen even the ‘competitive’ games of the Nations League as an opportunity for experimentation. But England didn’t fail. And they didn’t quite entirely succeed either. Depending on how full your plastic Boxpark pint glass is, England either played out of their skins to reach a semi-final they had no right to make or lost to the first good team they played in the knock-out stages (plus Belgium twice). As a result, a competitive game against Spain feels like it really matters – like a sort of Iberian litmus test. Would a friendly against Spain have the same feel? Maybe, but I’m not so sure.
Southgate deserves huge credit for the way he has managed to re-shape the squad and entirely transform the atmosphere around England both internally and externally. But that process isn’t complete, and maybe Southgate will continue to do that, at his own pace and without rocking the boat. But there’s certainly the possibility that he will become a victim of his own success, a problem compounded by the eradication of those meaningless games that maybe not quite everyone hated.