England’s World Cup selection problems
- December 3, 2022
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DOHA, Qatar — Perhaps the biggest test of manager Gareth Southgate’s loyalty to certain England players comes now. England enter the Round of 16 of the World Cup, where they meet Senegal on Sunday, with a selection conundrum largely absent from previous tournaments under the 52-year-old: pick players on form or past international performances?
Before 2016, there really was no “international past” to speak of. That summer England were humiliated by Iceland in the Round of 16 and the gradual transition to a new generation started by Roy Hodgson was hastened by Southgate after Sam Allardyce’s brief 67-day tenure.
But Southgate went on to deliver their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years at Russia 2018 and then their first major tournament final in 55 years at Euro 2020. It did so through a pragmatic method that he doesn’t want to abandon entirely, even as the make-up of his roster has gradually evolved into a top-heavy, creatively managed talent pool.
At the heart of the work he has done to redefine players’ relationship with the England shirt and particularly to seize the opportunities it offers, rather than feel the weight of past failures, was a team spirit that withstands the club’s difficulties . And a key aspect of this separation is the knowledge that past contributions to the cause will not be forgotten. As a result, Southgate faces some big decisions ahead of the Senegal game, partly due to how his loyalty in Qatar has so far been rewarded by other players in the squad.
Here ESPN takes a look at the England players who most clearly represent the form vs reputation debate.
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Harry Maguire has struggled for form at Man United. Adam Pretty – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
Make no mistake: Maguire was lucky enough to be in this England squad due to his form at Manchester United. The 29-year-old centre-back has made just nine appearances for United this season, with one Premier League start since August, and AC Milan’s Serie A winner Fikayo Tomori can be particularly annoyed at being left out. But Maguire’s first three appearances in Qatar turned the clock back to 2018 when he was a key figure in defense and an integral part of the ‘love train’, the nickname given to the array of players assembled for England’s corner routines.
Maguire achieved cult hero status during the tournament, proving himself once again as part of the England defense in five of the seven games at Euro 2020 (missing only the first two through injury) where he made the UEFA team of the tournament. There have been times when Maguire and John Stones have worked possession when attempting to play from behind – particularly against the USA – and the suspicion remains that any major mistake in an England exit makes its inclusion new to some will define “Southgate stubbornness.” But his pivotal performances in the group stage have settled any debate over whether Maguire deserves to start ahead of the other defenders in this squad.
England have no natural replacement for left-back Luke Shaw at this World Cup. Visionhaus/Getty Images
Shaw is England’s only natural left-back at these finals. Ben Chilwell’s hamstring injury, which he picked up early last month, deprived Southgate of the most obvious challenger for the 27-year-old, who had fallen out of favor at Man United as Erik ten Hag initially favored new signing Tyrell Malacia over Shaw, who won his place back to to start the last seven Premier League games before the World Cup.
But there is more to this. Shaw spoke in March 2021 about a sense of regret at withdrawing from several camps in England over the past few years and reflecting on how much he had “let Gareth down”. Reapplying, Southgate gave Shaw another opportunity and he hasn’t looked back, scoring England’s goal in last summer’s Euro 2020 final and cementing his place in Qatar with three solid performances. This gives the couple a renewed bond.
Kieran Trippier could play at left-back and Bukayo Saka has acted at left-back (unconvincing) for England but Shaw was substituted off against Wales with 25 minutes left when the game was already won, a clear sign aside from injury, he was will certainly start against Senegal.
Raheem Sterling was one of Gareth Southgate’s favorite players. Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images
This is where things start to get tricky. Sterling was part of the UEFA team of the tournament at Euro 2020 (Harry Kane wasn’t) and was a key player, combining midfield and attack for England at Russia 2018. Still, his club form has been below par since his £47.5million move from Manchester City to Chelsea in the summer, where he has admittedly endured one change of manager and even more frequent changes of position as Graham Potter has occasionally used him as an advanced full-back.
For England, competition for attacking positions is fierce on either side of striker Kane, with Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford making compelling arguments for their inclusion with goalscoring efforts against Wales, while Saka and Jack Grealish also have their supporters.
But Southgate has never started a KO game without Sterling in his lineup. And when Sterling scored against Iran from a pass by Kane, it was the 16th time the two had scored for England in 60 games (now 61st). Kane has a better record only with Son Heung-Min, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen against whom he has played more than three times as many games at Tottenham.
Southgate recognizes Sterling’s past efforts and when he struggled at City last season, the manager is said to have regularly offered his support when needed and maintained a close relationship. Only Kane (54th) has started more games under Southgate than Sterling (49th). Even if Foden, Rashford and Saka all make strong arguments for inclusion, it would be a huge surprise if Southgate couldn’t find a place for the winger given their history together.
Kalvin Phillips will likely get a start when he’s fit. Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images
The groan was almost audible as Henderson was Southgate’s first substitution as England struggled to a 0-0 draw with the USA. But the Liverpool midfielder brought some energy and momentum to the English midfield, proving he can play a more important role than just being one of the key behind-the-scenes figures in maintaining standards and professionalism within the camp.
Henderson is important to the team’s dynamic in that regard – defender Conor Coady is another example, who provided such a positive presence in the group that Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland named him England’s unofficial player of the tournament last summer without actually conceding a ball kick – – and in truth, he was probably closer to the line-up largely because of Kalvin Phillips’ injury.
Man City have always been optimistic about Phillips’ chances of overcoming his shoulder injury in time to reach the World Cup but he needed further time at English base Al Wakrah to build his sharpness. In his absence, Henderson started against Wales.
Jude Bellingham has been very impressive in England midfield and will certainly retain his place, but it would be brave of Southgate to pick the 19-year-old and Mason Mount in a 4-3-3 form with Declan Rice as England’s sole midfielder against Senegal. He favored two disciplined central midfielders in Rice and Phillips last summer who were vilified for their conservative passing game, although Southgate highlighted the stability and coverage they gave to a weak defence.
Switching to 3-4-3 is another option, although it would likely mean two of Phillips, Henderson and Mount would be out. Henderson will most likely be dropped to the bench, with a cameo role to see the game if things go according to plan.