It has been a theme of England at major tournaments, outstanding players a shadow of themselves as they nurse a battered metatarsal or some other injury which would have kept them out if only their reputation had not been so big, others shoehorned into positions that did not suit them just to get them onto the field.
Current manager Gareth Southgate was a non-playing squad member in 2002 when David Beckham was picked despite being less than fully fit, Kieron Dyer kept his place regardless of a nasty injury in the final league game of the season, and Danny Murphy was forced to pull out after fracturing his metatarsal once the squad got together, causing Trevor Sinclair to bob back and forth between England and Asia.
In 2006, the gamble was on Wayne Rooney, England’s ‘reward’ no goals but a red card.
It is nothing new. Southgate’s first ‘proper’ World Cup as a child was 1982, when England gambled on the fitness of Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking.
It could happen again.
It is always a difficult dilemma, made harder this year because Uefa has added three places to the squad in case of coronavirus outbreaks.
The final option of 26 players to be named on June 1, after Southgate opted late last night to delay naming his final squad for seven days, makes wild cards more tempting. Just because a key player will not be fit enough to face Croatia on June 13 does not mean he could not make a vital contribution if England, God willing, are back at Wembley on July 11 – or even around the camp.
History, though, shows it does not often work out that way and that rust is hard to scrape off in a major tournament. Even with the Championships diluted by extra teams, it would be arrogant to think there are any games England can win in a low gear, and disrespectful to some of those on the impressively deep fringes to suggest they could not do a better job fully fit.
So, of course, fate has thrown such problems at Southgate.
Even in the days since I sat down to start this process, Harry Maguire has been all-but ruled out of tomorrow’s Europa League final, Nick Pope has been sent for surgery, Kalvin Phillips has reinjured a shoulder that has been problematic this season and Jordan Henderson has been declared ‘fine’ by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, just not so fine he was prepared to bring him off the bench at Anfield on Sunday.
Liverpool defender Joe Gomez, sadly, has been an easy one, his season ended when it had barely begun. Jack Grealish was injured in February, Declan Rice March, Marcus Rashford always seems to be carrying a problem, but soldiering on.
A fit Henderson would be a must for the team, but despite Klopp’s protestations he is too much of a risk, having not played since February. The previously seemingly indestructible Sheffield-born centre-back Maguire probably falls into both categories, too.
If the argument is that they are good players to have around then take him, but not as part of the final 26. It is a great shame for two proper professionals and quality footballers, but sentiment does not win tournaments.
Defenders in particular cannot play at their own pace, they have to be able to chase around those they are marking.
It is a decision that can only really be made with the full medical expertise at Southgate’s disposal, but instinct suggests with the quality of England’s back-up that 100 per cent fit replacements will be better than players trying to get up to speed against the world’s best a la Beckham and Rooney. June 13 is a long way away in terms of days, but there are only two friendlies to find match fitness and training could not make up the gap in 2002 or 2006.
Grealish and Rice have, hopefully, returned in the nick of time to have an impact because their performances for club and country merit places in the XI. On Phillips, we will have to cross our fingers. Still uncapped nine months ago, Leeds United’s home-town hero deserves to go but again that in itself is not enough.
Absentees could open the door for former Leeds loanee Ben White, who can cover at centre-back and holding midfield.
There seemed to be more clarity as this squad moved towards completion in Spring 2020, but Southgate appears to have had second thoughts tactically since, switching between 3-4-3 and the 4-3-3 he favoured then. In 2020, the Three Lions looked very warm favourites, but have cooled since.
A bit of flexibility is no bad thing, but 3-4-3 never really convinced, a little too safe and not making full use of the plethora of thrilling players England can roll out in any number of play-making positions.
The temptation is to chuck them all in – a throwback to England’s ‘Golden Generation’ midfields – but there is a case for the (only slightly) less talented James Ward-Prowse to offer balance and the set-piece deliveries so important to England’s 2018 success story.
Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Grealish and Rashford probably all deserve to start every game but in what threatens to be a dead-on-their-feet tournament where five substitutes are available per game, perming three and having two as game-changers from the bench could be massive. Their form and lack of early-season game-time means Jesse Lingard and Bradfordian Mason Greenwood could offer important freshness.
The embarrassment of riches is even greater at right-back yet still it would seem wrong to leave out Trent Alexander-Arnold. Hopefully, his springtime omission was more about motivating and reinvigorating an outstanding attacking full-back but the suspicions that Southgate is lukewarm about him defensively will be confirmed or disproven today.
Others will feel hard-done to – maybe including Leeds’s Patrick Bamford – cursing their luck with injuries, or questioning why less talented players will get the chance they crave. It is about more than simply picking the best players, though, which is why Southgate’s choice will be such a hard one.
My England squad: Pickford, D Henderson, Johnstone; Alexander-Arnold, Walker, James, Stones, Mings, Coady, White, Shaw, Chilwell; Rice, Phillips*, Ward-Prowse, Bellingham, Mount, Grealish, Rashford, Sterling, Foden, Lingard, Sancho, Greenwood, Kane, Calvert-Lewin.
* or Winks if Phillips is unfit.
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