Gareth Southgate is testing the public’s patience with his selection of squads, teams and tactics. And here are five big-name players with reason to feel aggrieved by the England boss…
We know that Sterling is p*ssed off with Southgate because the manager admitted as much when unveiling his squad for the current fixtures.
“A difficult call and Raheem was not particularly happy about it,” said Southgate after he spoke to the Chelsea forward to explain his absence. Sterling sat out the camp in March due to fitness, and June by his own request. So the England boss stayed loyal to those who secured four wins in four games after the World Cup.
Is there a path back for Sterling? The manager never closes doors but as well as fiercely loyal, Southgate can also be a ruthless b*stard. And, as he said, England are well-stocked out wide.
“We have got Foden, Grealish, Rashford, Saka, so there’s four for two positions. Maddison has also played there.” And against Ukraine, Jude Belingham was shunted wide. So there’s six.
Speaking of Bellingham, you wouldn’t blame the Real Madrid superstar for resenting the fact that he spent his Saturday evening on the left flank in Poland.
Bellingham has lit up the Bernabeu since his £100million summer move, scoring five goals and assisting another in his first four games in La Liga.
For Real, Bellingham has played as a No.10 off the front two, where Carlo Ancelotti feels he is most at home: “To try to use his characteristics, the best position for him is number 10.”
That was the number on his back against Ukraine but Bellingham was limited to a left-wing role, with James Maddison just inside but also patrolling a similar beat. The fact both were hooked just after the hour as Southgate sought to prompt an improvement summed up both performances.
How much responsibility should Southgate shoulder for that? It seems the simplest approach would be to position players where they are most likely to thrive. Bellingham, Ancelotti and anyone with eyes knows that is not the left wing.
Southgate made a point about Bellingham playing a little deeper for England, which was based on sound logic: “He has had to show a slightly different side because he has played a little higher with them losing Karim Benzema and his game is suited to forward running and arriving in the box.”
So why not play him there? Instead, Jordan Henderson sat on Declan Rice’s toes and England looked painfully rigid, with Bellingham stranded on the wing.
The Manchester United forward has had to play through the middle for his club more than he would have liked while the Red Devils waited for Rasmus Hojlund. In Poland on Saturday night, with the perfect opportunity to play off his favoured left flank, instead, Rashford watched from the bench.
In Jack Grealish’s absence, Southgate shoehorned Bellingham into the side rather than pick the obvious and natural replacement.
Rashford eventually saw some action, replacing Bellingham just after the hour, but by then, the pattern of the game had been set. Ukraine had settled into their defensive shape and were already high on their success in keeping England at bay.
With too much plodding through the middle, England ought to have had more pace and penetration from wide from the outset. Instead, Rashford sat and watched while the Three Lions went through the motions.
If Southgate really was wedded to two holding midfielders, arguably another more suited to partnering Rice was the man who replaced him at West Ham.
The problem there, though, is that James Ward-Prowse wasn’t even in the squad. Seemingly because Southgate is at pains to demonstrate his loyalty to Henderson. And, arguably more weirdly, Kalvin Phillips.
Henderson has taken the Saudi coin while Phillips is collecting his wage for very little work at Manchester City. Last season, he didn’t make a Premier League start until the title had been won and this term, he’s no more involved. Six minutes as a sub while 4-1 up is his contribution so far.
Compare and contrast with Ward-Prowse, who has been superb since joining West Ham in the summer. The midfielder has always seemed to be on the fringes of Southgate’s thinking, constantly around the cut-off line when the England boss selects his squad. But, if Henderson continues to be selected in the XI and Phillips in the squad, Ward-Prowse might as well ‘just retire’, as Rio Ferdinand suggested. He won’t, of course, because he’s not a child. But you could understand if he was tempted.
As well as Henderson and Phillips, Southgate’s loyalty to Harry Maguire really grinds gears among the England support. Like Phillips, the Manchester United defender is nowhere near first-choice for his club – Maguire is arguably fifth in line – but still he gets a regular game for England.
Dunk might kill to be viewed as favourably as Maguire and the Brighton defender may have been miffed to watch the draw with Ukraine from the sidelines. But Dunk perhaps should have partnered Maguire rather than replaced him.
In Poland on Saturday night, Ukraine dropped into a low block and allowed England’s centre-backs plenty of possession. Between them, Maguire and Marc Guehi had 226 touches. But neither is geared towards bringing the ball forward into areas to prompt a press. Both prefer to knock the ball around in the hope someone else might.
That’s where they missed John Stones and more so than Guehi, Dunk is the better fit to replace the Manchester City defender and the ease with which he can start attacks by prompting and playing through a press.
After five years in the international wilderness, Dunk was perhaps just happy to be involved this weekend but if Roberto De Zerbi is right and the 31-year-old is among the best five centre-backs in Europe, then he deserves to chance to showcase why. Southgate won’t build a defence around Dunk but if Stones is ever missing, as he frequently is, then the Brighton skipper should be allowed to build on the solitary cap he already owns.
Read more: The evolution of Lewis Dunk: Get yourself a defender who can do it all, Gareth…
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