World Cup: Principled Gareth Southgate provides balance and hope with his England squad

England's Manager Gareth Southgate 'during International Friendly match between England and Italy at Wembley (Picture: Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
England's Manager Gareth Southgate 'during International Friendly match between England and Italy at Wembley (Picture: Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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JUST a couple of hours after his predecessor in the England job had been shown the door in the Premier League, Gareth Southgate once again looked to the future as more of the nation’s old guard were ushered out the door.

Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere were the high-profile absentees from the 23-man squad that will travel to the World Cup in Russia carrying the hopes of the nation.

Another who, like Wilshere, made his international debut in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 World Cup debacle under Fabio Capello did make the plane but only just, Gary Cahill surely owing his inclusion to Joe Gomez having recently undergone ankle surgery rather than anything he has done in Chelsea colours this term.

Following on from Wayne Rooney being tactfully phased out by Southgate over the past 12 months along with several other Three Lions stalwarts such as Chris Smalling and Theo Walcott, there is an energy and freshness to this England squad that has not been evident for some time.

The presence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, hugely impressive on loan at Crystal Palace from Chelsea this season, in yesterday’s squad helps, as does the inclusion of uncapped Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold and one-time York City loanee Nick Pope, the Burnley goalkeeper.

Fabian Delph, so impressive in Manchester City’s title romp, is also a welcome returnee to the fold as Southgate puts his faith in promise and potential rather than experience, a fact underlined by this squad boasting just 449 international appearances between them.

Surprise call-up: Trent Alexander-Arnold. (Picture: Nigel French/PA Wire)

Surprise call-up: Trent Alexander-Arnold. (Picture: Nigel French/PA Wire)

It is comfortably the lowest tally of caps to leave these shores destined for a World Cup since the turn of the Millennium, the party Capello took to South Africa eight years ago having 820 to their name. Roy Hodgson’s England, meanwhile, had 657, while the 2006 squad boasted 738 to the 550 caps that descended on Japan/South Korea four years earlier.

That the squad has evolved so much in 20 months under Southgate but with a minimum of fuss is to his credit. Ditching Hart and Wilshere, on the back of that earlier overhaul, also points to a ruthless side to Southgate that maybe his critics were not anticipating when he was named as Sam Allardyce’s successor.

Neither Hart nor Wilshere can surely complain. Hart has had a poor season at West Ham United, while Wilshere’s withdrawal from the squad for the March double-header against Holland and Italy through injury effectively sealed his fate.

Southgate is understood to have already held reservations as to whether the Arsenal midfielder’s body would be able to stand up to the demands of tournament football, where games take place every four days or so.

If Wilshere had gone to Russia, the midfield would have had to be built around such a talent. This, though, would have made Southgate and his team a hostage to fortune as the merest hint of Wilshere’s injury curse returning would have thrown the Three Lions into disarray due to there being no like-for-like replacement.

Richard Sutcliffe

To be fair to Wilshere, he has largely been injury-free this term. He has also re-established himself as an integral member of the starting XI at the Emirates since the turn of the year.

But, by withdrawing from those March friendlies with a tendon-related knee problem, a chink in his armour was revealed that Southgate simply cannot risk at a major tournament.

If Wilshere had gone to Russia, the midfield would have had to be built around such a talent. This, though, would have made Southgate and his team a hostage to fortune as the merest hint of Wilshere’s injury curse returning would have thrown the Three Lions into disarray due to there being no like-for-like replacement.

Such thinking is why a succession of England managers were never truly able to rely on Ledley King, despite him being one of the finest defenders the Premier League has seen. Basically, Wilshere isn’t worth the trouble.

Jamie Vardy provides options up front for England (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

Jamie Vardy provides options up front for England (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

Elsewhere, England are well covered if injury strikes. Even Harry Kane being unavailable would be offset by Marcus Rashford or Jamie Vardy being able to step in without disrupting how the Three Lions play. Southgate being able to name five attackers in yesterday’s squad, as opposed to the four Hodgson took to Brazil in 2014, also provides options if things are going awry.

The midfield and defence is similarly well covered, though former Leeds United midfielder Lewis Cook can consider himself unfortunate only to be on the five-man standby list along with Adam Lallana, rather than the full squad.

What perhaps brings most hope to the long-suffering Three Lions fans, however, is how Southgate has instilled an element of defensive steel in his players.

But for a controversial late penalty award to Italy by VAR in March’s 1-1 draw at Wembley, Southgate’s men would be heading into their final double-header of friendlies next month on the back of a six-game run without conceding a goal.

Considering this has come without any of the goalkeepers 
at Southgate’s disposal nailing down the ‘No 1’ shirt and the personnel having changed from game to game, this is hugely encouraging.

Much of this can be put down to the midfield looking after the ball with much more care. Having three men in the centre of the field has helped, though Southgate’s adoption of a three-man backline has also been a big factor.

Southgate’s big challenge now is to add some attacking swagger to this new-found defensive solidity. And especially in the first two group games against Tunisia and Panama, two opponents whose first and second priorities will be containment. Solving this likely conundrum will be key if the realistic target of a place in the quarter-finals is to be achieved.

Like Allardyce, sacked yesterday by Everton, Southgate will be judged on not only results but also how his side go about tackling a World Cup. Yesterday’s squad, as balanced a selection as it could have been, means he has a chance.