The most exciting part of any World Cup is the match for third place, because everybody’s done with it at that point and the score usually ends up something like 12-3. But the second most exciting part of any World Cup is the announcement of the England squad, as football’s most hubristically self-loathing nation finally finds out which chancers will be breaking its heart this summer.
It’s this lot:
The omission of Joe Hart may not have been a particularly great surprise, but it does leave a gargantuan experience deficit between the posts. Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland, and Nick Pope have a mere nine caps between them, and together make up England’s least experienced keeping unit for a major tournament since at least the turn of the millennium.
The temptation is always to read calls like this as being statements of some kind: Southgate puts his faith in youth! Southgate clears out the old guard! In truth, Hart’s season has been so weird and wretched that the true statement would have been to go the other way. Had he been picked, it would have been a clear signal that Southgate doesn’t think taking a mere nine caps to a tournament is a good idea.
Instead, it looks very much like he’s picked the three best English goalkeepers at this moment. Disappointing for fans of statements stronger than: Experience isn’t everything! But good news for fans of Jordan Pickford.
Flexibility seems to be the key here. Since taking over the job, Southgate has played both a back three with wingbacks and a back four, and he’s got at least three players for every position there, along with a few that can jump into midfield if things get experimental. Nice to see Trent Alexander-Arnold included as well. Now there’s a statement: Reaching the Champions League final does wonders for your reputation.
Perhaps the most interesting selection dilemma comes at central defence, where nobody has an unarguable case for a starting place. Of those plying their trade in the big six, John Stones hasn’t always been convincing for Manchester City, Gary Cahill spent a good while out of Chelsea’s team, and Phil Jones remains Phil Jones. Meanwhile Eric Dier’s been mostly a midfielder for a while now. Let’s hope Harry Maguire gets the nod. After all, he’s the member of the squad that looks most like he could have been playing in 1966.
Other questions: Will the experiment with Kyle Walker as a right-sided central defender continue? Will the rusty Danny Rose get the nod over Ashley Young or Fabian Delph? And is five — Alexander-Arnold, Jones, Trippier, Walker, Young — a record for the most (sort-of) right-backs taken to a major tournament?
You know, Raheem Sterling played at right wingback for a bit. Let’s make that six.
The midfield, or lack thereof
Eric Dier? Check. Jordan Henderson? Check. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Ah, now there’s a problem.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury was unfortunate, and horribly timed, given he was finally beginning to flourish into the player that he’d always hinted at becoming. What’s intriguing is the list of fringe midfielders that Gareth Southgate, for various reasons, hasn’t called up to replace him: no Jack Wilshere, no Jonjo Shelvey, no Jake Livermore, no Mark Noble, no Adam Lallana.
Instead, Ruben Loftus-Cheek gets the nod, along with the possibility of cover from Delph and Alexander-Arnold. If England go with three in the middle, we’d guess at Dier, Henderson, and Dele Alli. And if England get injuries, it’ll all start to look a little improvised.
Given Raheem Sterling’s wonderful season, we’d imagine he’s nailed on to start whatever Southgate’s chosen formation. The other wing, if necessary, can be filled by either Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford. But the most pleasing thing about England’s attacking options is they have two genuinely scary central strikers who are good at very different things.
Indeed, it might even be worth rotating them in accordance with the opposition. Against teams that will sit deep and crowd the box, pick Kane. He’ll get shots, and he’s good at them. Against teams that will push up and look to dominate the ball, pick Vardy. There will be space, and he can do that hyperactive were-terrier thing he does.
Southgate’s not going to do that, of course. Kane’s going to start. But, oh, just think about how beautiful the noise would be. England take on Brazil, and Southgate drops Kane. The internet would snap in half.
Southgate has named five players as stand-bys for the tournament, and given that injuries do often turn up at the end of the season, it won’t be a surprise if one or more end up travelling to Russia.
Four of them are straightforward back-ups: Tom Heaton in goal, James Tarkowski in defence, and Jake Livermore and Lewis Cook in midfield. But the fifth is Adam Lallana, who would almost certainly be in the full squad if he’d had a full season at Liverpool.
Given the total lack of any other attacking player on this list of five, Lallana is effectively covering almost a third of the 23-man squad. It won’t be too surprising if this omission ends up being just another few weeks to work on his fitness. And then, if he goes and is fit, he might well end up playing. England don’t have anybody else quite like him.
The FA’s announcement video
... is brilliant, and anybody saying otherwise is not to be trusted.