Malta v England: Under-fire Hart still England's No 1, says Southgate
The Three Lions take on the side ranked 190th in the world tonight as they look to take another step closer to next summer’s World Cup.
The 30-year-old has endured a rocky start to his season-long loan at West Ham, conceding 10 goals in his first three matches, and the competition from Jack Butland, Tom Heaton and Jordan Pickford is only getting stronger.
But Southgate was clear that the status quo has yet to be overturned, with Hart’s record of conceding just twice in six qualifiers counting in his favour.
“Joe will start for us. I think he’s our best goalkeeper at the moment,” he said.
“I wanted to see how he would respond because he has had a difficult start to the season with his club but I’m pleased he’s in a good frame of mind. Joe has trained really well.
“His performances since I’ve been manager have been very, very good, he’s only conceded two goals in Scotland in this qualifying campaign.”
While Southgate was emphatic in standing up for Hart, he gave just enough hope to the challengers that it was not a lost cause before next summer’s World Cup.
“We’re only three matches into the start of the season, so I don’t feel as though the others have had time to stake a claim to push Joe out of that position,” he explained.
“But we’ve got three excellent goalkeepers here, there’s Jordan who was with us (before withdrawing through injury), and Fraser Forster, who is very unfortunate not to be in the squad.
“I’m fascinated to see how they all get on over the next few months.”
Hart is one of five players to have worn the skipper’s armband during Southgate’s eight games at the helm – alongside Wayne Rooney, Jordan Henderson, Gary Cahill and Harry Kane.
Rooney was the last permanent captain before losing his place in Southgate’s plans and his retirement last week has reinvigorated the question about a long-term successor.
As a player Southgate led every one of his club sides but remains convinced the most pressing need is to empower the group, rather than elevate one individual.
“I’m keen to keep sharing the leadership,” he said.
“We’ve focused too much on Wayne in particular these last few years and we’ve got to start building up a more resilient group of leaders to take responsibility.
“For me it’s not my most important decision, more important is trying to build the group into a stronger group that reacts in the right way collectively to pressure moments in the game.
“By putting one person forward to do that I don’t think we’re going to build that as a team.”
It was against the Maltese that Southgate took charge of England for the first time, then on an interim basis following the messy departure of Sam Allardyce.
He presided over a scrappy 2-0 victory at Wembley, though the extenuating circumstances could be taken as mitigation against a side now ranked 190th in the world.
Better will be expected this time but Southgate stressed his reign is still in a relatively formative phase.
“We’ve had about 25 days with the players since I became permanent manager, which would be about 16 or 17 training sessions across a period of eight months,” added Southgate, whose side’s arrival in Malta was delayed an hour.
“It’s not easy to bring an instant change, it’s going to take time to put some things in place. But I feel the players are a lot clearer about the direction we want to go.”
Uncapped Harry Maguire and Nathaniel Chalobah will start from the bench in Malta because England manager Southgate wants them to earn their spurs.
Leicester defender Maguire and Watford midfielder Chalobah are the only uncapped members of the squad for the match in Malta, where Southgate plans to name a strong side.
“If the game plays out in a way that is positive for us, then maybe,” the England boss said. “But they won’t start.
“I think within the squad of players we’ve got, we’ve got real competition for places in every area of the field, so you have to earn the right to get in the squad, and earn the right to then get in the team.
“There is a bit of a process around that, getting used to how we work, but really pleased with the way both of them have adjusted and trained.”
Tottenham defensive midfielder Eric Dier misses out through suspension.
Tottenham team-mate Kieran Trippier returned to his club on Thursday through injury.
“Just Kieran Trippier had to go back to Tottenham,” added Southgate, who lost Jordan Pickford earlier in the week.
“He wasn’t able to train with us all week. He might have had a chance for Monday, but we think it’s better to go back and recover properly. Everyone else is fit and available.”
Tottenham right-back Kieran Trippier has withdraww from the England squad through injury.