MARTIN SAMUEL: I cannot dispute the choice of the Fab Four! It’s hard to disagree with the Southgate team
It makes it difficult for you sometimes, Gareth Southgate. All those nods in agreement before a tournament.
Where is the tension, the discontent, the arguments? He was doing it again on Tuesday.
Four right-backs. Count them. Four! Completely unbalanced, totally unbalanced and exactly what had been recommended in these pages as of April 2.
Throw us a bone here, man. What’s the point of an English manager who keeps doing exactly what you want him to do? Southgate was that man in 2018, too. Chose Ashley Young at left-back, left out Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey. Check, verify and verify. Baffles? What is the point of having baffles?
Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad for the European Championship is very difficult to challenge
Jesse Lingard may feel uncomfortable, but it is difficult to go to war due to searing form between February and mid-April. Lingard has scored nine goals in 10 games for West Ham during that span and then none in his last six games as opposition managers made special plans for him.
He also plays in the forward midfielder position in which England are blessed. He would be on my team but wouldn’t necessarily have to play. And an argument about the 26th name on the team sheet isn’t really an argument at all.
Southgate went with Bukayo Saka instead. On second thought, he’s probably right. No one will die in a ditch fighting Lingard against Saka.
As for the four right-backs, that’s four times more than those chosen by Roy Hodgson for the 2014 World Cup – Glen Johnson, number one in a field – but Southgate has not lost his head.
Southgate went with his two young right-backs to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James
Kyle Walker (L) and Kieran Trippier (R) offer experience as well as tactical versatility from the back
Rather, here’s a manager who knows his stuff, knows the extra freedom a 26-man squad offers and isn’t afraid to use it. They’re all in it – now we can start debating who’s playing. And the point is, it’s not as important as making sure the players are available to him. Every right-back deserved his selection.
Reece James was one of the best players in the Champions League final; Kyle Walker, one of the few beaten Manchester City players to be credited; Kieran Tripper has just won the title with Atletico Madrid where he made the LaLiga team of the season; Trent Alexander-Arnold excelled in the streak of eight wins and two draws that propelled Liverpool to an unlikely third place.
Any of them can do the job, and Southgate can tailor their selections to the shape and circumstances of the training ground; certainly, when there are so many doubts about Harry Maguire, which means Walker can be called upon to be a third center-half.
That would then leave James and Alexander-Arnold vying for a marauding winger role, with Trippier perhaps the most conservative and strongest defensive option against a better team. At the end of the day, these are good dilemmas, interesting permutations.
Jesse Lingard (R) finished the season strong but shouldn’t be complaining about missing
And this before considering other positions that these gifted players can cover: left-back, central midfielder, central half. Jordan Henderson hasn’t kicked a ball since the 30th minute of a game with Everton on February 20. What if he doesn’t?
Southgate could end up with a right-back in central defense, another in central midfield and a third in right-back. What if he only chose three and at the time he was injured? It would be an absurd situation to have four of the best players in Europe in this position and end up running out of body.
It was interesting that when Trippier first spoke about the competition for places, he made no mention of Walker. He then changed that, but there was some question as to whether Southgate had ever explained his intended role to one of his right-backs: and he hasn’t. Maguire is unlikely to be in good shape for the opener against Croatia. Southgate is optimistic that will change, but there is no egos leniency here. These selections are necessary.
This England team has title experience as well as an exciting array of exuberance
Alexander-Arnold was informed three weeks ago that he was present. Southgate said he felt pressured to reassure the player amid intense speculation about his position, having been ruled out in recent England matches. Southgate even spoke to him again on Monday evening as stories of his exile continued to circulate.
“He was taking set pieces for us that morning,” Southgate said. “I really don’t know where it all came from. There was a story about me once. That I liked The Great British Bake Off, had Bake Off parties, and wanted to be on the show. The only thing they got it right was my age.
It was the only time he seemed slightly irritated.
So what about this team? They are a strong team with tournament potential. He’s got a mix of major title and trophy winners – one of the perks of an open league – and young men who play without fear.
Southgate also held firm on Trent Alexander-Arnold on Tuesday afternoon
“You see guys like Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish, Saka playing with freedom at the highest level and doing it so well,” said Trippier. “You see it in training, nothing bothers them. “
Southgate said its players are adaptable. More than previous generations?
“My instinct is to say yes,” he replied. “Then I think of players like Paul Scholes or Paul Gascoigne, Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton playing as backs, me in this gap between defense and midfield.
“It depends a lot on the manager. We have always had technically gifted players. Maybe what they have now is more tactical awareness. Youth coaches are asking for more of them now. My generation had to wait before this started.
He sounded optimistic. Happy with his workforce, happy with his chances, happy with his four right-backs. So it should be.