March 30, 2023

After a series of difficult phone calls, Gareth left Southgate one that was completely different to the last. The last number the England manager had typed into his mobile on Thursday morning belonged to James Maddison.

“The calls I’ve made are to the two guys coming back from injury, the guys I dropped from the roster and then James,” Southgate explained.

“I had some really tough calls that were on the other end of the spectrum emotionally, so it was nice to give myself a bit of a happy ending to all of that.

Gareth Southgate has assembled an England squad full of skill and attacking flair

“James was delighted and the nature of those conversations, good and bad, reminds you how important it is to go to a World Cup. It’s a great day.’

Whether November 10 is indeed remembered with fondness depends a lot on how England perform in a World Cup that kicks off for Southgate and his side with a game against Iran a week on Monday.

For now, though, it looks like the manager has chosen a team that, by and large, many of us would have wished for.

It’s a team that lacks defensive depth, but that’s no one’s fault. Injuries have hit England hard on the back. But it’s also a group of players that crave technical skills, attacking flair and big tournament experience.

Southgate, 52, is not a manager who is fond of elaborate predictions. Don’t talk to him about a golden generation. But at least he can get on a plane to Doha on Tuesday, knowing that, at least on paper, he has with him a group of players capable of breaking through in the tournament.

Southgate will have to hope his continued faith in Harry Maguire pays off in Qatar

Southgate will have to hope his continued faith in Harry Maguire pays off in Qatar

Memories of poor recent form will of course travel with England. They haven’t won a game since March, a run of six games.

At the last press briefing he gave prior to this match, in September, Southgate was forced to admit that his time as national team leader will come to an end if his team fails to perform in the desert.

But with the dawn of a major tournament comes optimism. It is always the way. Sometimes it’s unrealistic, but if Southgate chose to look back on two successful tournaments – the last World Cup and last summer’s European Championship – for inspiration rather than what would have been undeniably a difficult 2022, then it would be hard to blame him. to be.

This is a team that draws hard from those positive summer experiences. With that in mind, it was encouraging to see Kalvin Phillips back on the pitch this week after injury and uplifting to see Marcus Rashford back where he belongs in the squad.

The Manchester United player’s return to form was welcome and, as Southgate said, thanks in no small part to the impact of new manager Erik ten Hag at Old Trafford.

We hope Maddison can make an impact. He is a gifted player who does not want confidence. We also hope Callum Wilson’s form from Newcastle can accompany him to Doha and provide Southgate with a real alternative to captain Harry Kane, who cannot be expected to spend every minute of every game in the Middle East heat. plays.

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It was uplifting to see Marcus Rashford again after his struggle with confidence last season

It was uplifting to see Marcus Rashford again after his struggle with confidence last season

However, new attacking players like this can only perform if they are provided with structure and a base by a group of players who have seen it all before.

No doubt England’s defensive options are a concern. Southgate once said that if there was a defender-only World Cup, we would win it. With Reece James and Ben Chilwell out injured and Kyle Walker not expected to be available for the group matches, England can now see themselves as slightly under-supplied.

An injury to either Luke Shaw or Kieran Trippier would qualify Trent Alexander-Arnold for a starting spot and the Liverpool defender is a player we know Southgate has reservations about.

Likewise, Southgate in the middle must hope his continued faith in Harry Maguire pays off. If not, a nation’s expectations may need to be tempered a bit.

Southgate itself faces a test in Qatar. He is seen by many as too conservative a coach. They think this group of players would benefit from working for someone more daring.

To this he said: ‘We are excited about this. We know we have learned a lot in the last two tournaments. We have broken many barriers.

‘There is a lot of confidence in the group that they can handle these situations and the way they experience them. That has been dampened a bit by the results in the recent past. But I feel like going to a World Cup. It’s my fourth and that’s a privilege and an honor.

“All those calls I’ve made, the hard ones and the really enjoyable ones, were a reminder of what it means to the players.

“At the 2018 World Cup we were at the start of something where we hadn’t won a knockout match in 10 years and there was perhaps a little less experience within the big game group.

“I think this is a team that is comparable in status to the group that went to the European Championship last summer.

‘We are enthusiastic about the group. We think there is a lot of exciting young talent in it. Now the whole group has to come together.’

Tournament squads normally consist of 23 players. Three more are allowed this time to protect themselves against Covid complications.

That fact has undeniably given Southgate some leeway, but he has taken advantage of it. Had he not selected Maddison, it would have been a decision that would have followed him right up to the start of the tournament.

He saw that on the pass and this looks and feels like the right team for what lies ahead. All that’s left now is real football.