England’s Nations League squad announcement: reaction

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Ah, England squad announcements never fail to disappoint. Gareth Southgate has selected his 24-man squad for England’s upcoming Nations League matches against Iceland and Denmark, but inevitably not everyone is satisfied.

Despite England’s relative success at the 2018 World Cup, Southgate’s squad selections continue to spark floods of outrage and meticulous interrogation from fans on social media. As ever, many feel aggrieved that their favourite player has failed to make the cut, with “What about x?” and “Where is y?” populating Twitter feeds everywhere.

While there are some mysterious oversights and omissions, there are few objectively bad decisions. Southgate has largely delivered on his promise of ensuring that form precedes reputation – choosing a strong squad in exceptional circumstances and continuing to stoke the flames of an exciting project founded on youth and dynamism.

The main talking point lies in the defence: namely the inclusion, and subsequent exclusion, of Harry Maguire. The 27-year-old was found guilty of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and attempted bribery while on holiday in Mykonos, and has been handed a suspended 21-month sentence by the Greek authorities.

He has since been withdrawn from the squad, which raises the question of who pairs up alongside Joe Gomez in centre-back. One of Tyrone Mings and Michael Keane are set to fill in, who have been somewhat fortunately chosen over a solid cast of prospective Wolves, Sheffield United and Burnley hopefuls – namely James Tarkowski, Jack O’Connell and Conor Coady.

Other credible Maguire replacements include Everton’s Mason Holgate, who has proven an extremely capable and versatile option under Carlo Ancelotti, and the ever-reliable Brighton skipper Lewis Dunk. Elsewhere, Southgate may choose to recall Chris Smalling, who to the surprise of many has enjoyed a new lease of life during his loan spell at Roma. John Stones, meanwhile, appears to be way down the pecking order following yet another disappointing season at Manchester City.

Southgate finds himself with a freakish abundance of top-quality right-backs to choose from which, while seeming like a huge bonus for England, creates an agonising selection headache. Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier have been given the nod, which for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and to a lesser extent Reece James, and to an even lesser extent Max Aarons, will feel like a kick in the teeth. Being such a crowded department, this has only added fuel to the possibility of Alexander-Arnold being moved into a midfield role.

For all of these options on the right-hand side of defence, England are without an obvious left-back with Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw out injured. Southgate could have opted for Arsenal’s 18-year-old starlet Bukayo Saka, who has massively impressed for Arsenal this season, though his omission has left fans scratching their heads. Others could have done a competent job – specifically Brandon Williams, Ryan Sessegnon and Charlie Taylor – though it seems someone will have to be shoehorned out of their natural position in Reykjavík and Copenhagen.

Southgate finds himself with an abundance of top-quality right-backs to choose from which creates an agonising selection headache.

In midfield, Declan Rice should adequately deputise for the absent Jordan in holding midfield, having finished the season with a flourish for West Ham. It is refreshing to see Southgate take a chance on Kalvin Phillips who, despite having never played in the Premier League, caught the eye as a linchpin in Marcelo Bielsa’s Championship-winning Leeds side.

Who plays either side of Rice in Southgate’s preferred 4-3-3, however, remains unclear. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley are out injured, with James Maddison reportedly lacking match fitness, while the likes of Dele Alli, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jonjo Shelvey have seemingly been snubbed altogether.

Among those overlooked is Jack Grealish, who would be entirely within his rights to feel hard done by, having been instrumental in helping Aston Villa beat the drop last season. Phil Foden, Mason Mount and James Ward-Prowse are preferred as the creative midfield players, which should provide sufficient flair and threat from set-pieces, though it will be a massive blow for the Villa captain who will be left pondering what more he can possibly do.

The repeated inclusion of Eric Dier is becoming tiresome and indefensible; for many it represents nothing more than a sentimental attachment to the old guard. Despite his international experience, the 26-year-old has been insipid for some time, with question marks still hanging over what his best position is. Jesse Lingard and Fabian Delph are not in contention, however, which proves that there is some justice in the world.

The jury remains out on Harry Winks, who depending on who you ask either flatters to deceive or is the nifty, Xavi-esque deep-lying playmaker that England have been crying out for.

In goal, Nick Pope, Dean and Jordan Pickford were called up as expected, though who starts is another question altogether. The consensus among fans and pundits seems to be shifting toward Pope, who registered an astonishing fifteen clean sheets with Burnley last season – six more than the cocksure, meretricious Pickford who is proving an increasingly unpopular choice among England fans following a season littered with errors and mishaps.

The attack chooses itself, with Harry Kane, Mason Greenwood, Danny Ings, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling all bang in form. Tammy Abraham, you imagine, is just happy to be there after his season fizzled out and the goals dried up. On paper he seems totally surplus to requirements, looking to the England strike force what Ashley Cole was to Roma circa 2014.

A recall for the dogged and energetic Danny Ings is richly deserved, having netted 22 goals this season for Southampton. Similarly, it is fantastic to see 18-year-old Mason Greenwood handed a chance: a truly thrilling prospect who since the restart has found real consistency and a razor-sharp eye for goal.

This team selection gestures towards a pragmatic and experimental England going forward.

Overall, England are in great shape in terms of personnel and you feel for Southgate who was tasked with the unenviable job of having to whittle down a terrific pool of players. Ultimately, the fact that he can afford to leave out talents such as Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Callum Hudson-Odoi encapsulates the healthy position England are in.

Kyle Walker is the only player who is 30-years-old or above, which tells you everything you need to know about Southgate’s emphasis on trusting and rewarding youth while they are in form. This team selection gestures towards a pragmatic and experimental England going forward, one that is not afraid to shed its skin when necessary and strike the iron while it’s hot.

There is a streetwise feel to Southgate’s post-World Cup sides, possessive of the vibrancy and elan which so often went missing during the Roy Hodgson era.

The danger of course is alienating players like Saka, who may choose to commit his future to Nigeria if continually omitted, but this is just me poking holes. With only 24 players to select, big decisions had to be made and disappointment was inevitable; as England fans we should be fortunate that we have such a star-studded catalogue of exciting young talent at our disposal.

Certain players will feel hard done by, but healthy competition can only be a good thing. There will be a critical microscope placed on every single player in the build up to the Euros next summer, and players should not feel disheartened but instead motivated to impress with the knowledge that they will be rewarded based on form.

Without undermining the gravity of the tournament too much, the Nations League provides an excellent opportunity to experiment and take some risks. With Covid-19 forcing the delay of the Euros until next summer, one precious commodity that England will exploit is time – an extra season for a series of fine talents to refine their abilities and challenge for a starting spot.

Naturally, there is an impetuous minority who have called for Southgate’s head in response to this squad announcement, but we must all maintain the same faith that allowed us to dream two summers ago. Contain your moral outrage for now, England fans, the future remains bright.

Image: irish-adam via Creative Commons

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