With England likely to be missing two-thirds of their first choice midfield, Southgate has a decision to make again
England should qualify for the World Cup. Gareth Southgate’s side require four points from their final two Group I matches to secure a place at next year’s finals in Qatar. Barring the worst result in the 149-year history of the national team, three of those points will come in Serravalle on Monday night away to San Marino, the lowest-ranked nation of all 210 listed in Fifa’s men’s standings.
That leaves tonight’s visit of Albania as the one remaining potential banana skin and, even then, England have not lost a qualifier at Wembley in 14 years. The worst-case scenario of a defeat to Albania, with Poland winning both of their remaining games and pipping England to automatic qualification on goal difference is realistic enough to ward against complacency but still remote.
England do not need to be perfect to qualify, which is just as well, given that preparations have been far from ideal. Marcus Rashford was the first to pull out of the squad, having fallen ill after Manchester United’s trip to Atalanta last week. Luke Shaw suffered a concussion in last weekend’s Manchester derby and is unlikely to return in time for Friday following the strict protocols on head injuries. Jack Grealish has felt a little under the weather too.
The withdrawal of in-form Declan Rice through illness and Mason Mount’s dental surgery are perhaps the more pressing issues though. While Rashford, Shaw and Grealish all have interchangeable deputies, the absence of Rice and Mount leaves Southgate without two-thirds of what became England’s first-choice midfield during the summer’s European Championship and will force him into something of a rethink.
Southgate would rather not use these two games to experiment. It was not an accident that there were no international novices in his initial 23-man squad. The call-up of uncapped Emile Smith Rowe only came after Rashford pulled out and there have been no further replacements, with a decision taken to largely stick with the group of players that took England to their first major tournament final in 55 years.
But if the identity of those called up has been consistent, their arrangement out on the pitch has varied. The ever-so-slight sense of jeopardy hanging over these final two qualifiers comes as a result of the unexpected 1-1 draw with Hungary last month, which saw Southgate ditch the much-maligned double pivot of defensive midfielders and play an unambiguous 4-3-3, with Mount and Phil Foden operating as attack-minded No 8s.
The result? England were far too easy to play through, with Rice overrun as the lone holding midfielder. A return to playing Rice alongside Kalvin Phillips, who missed the October internationals through injury, felt inevitable for these final qualifiers. It is probably England’s best partnership, one that was good enough to get them all the way to a final despite the criticism. It is no longer possible against Albania, though.
There are a couple of alternatives. Jordan Henderson was considered one of the first names of Southgate’s team sheets this time last year, before surgery on groin injury in the second half of last season paved the way for Phillips’ emergence. The Liverpool captain was out until the end of the campaign and touch and go for the tournament, to the point where – as Southgate revealed for the first time on Thursday – he may not have made it were the squad limited to the original maximum of 23 players rather than the expanded 26.
“With Hendo, I had a long chat with him before the summer. We knew the situation we were in,” Southgate said. “He was running but had missed so many weeks of football so it was unrealistic to expect him to be totally match sharp. He still had a huge contribution to what we were doing on and off the pitch. He’s been very professional in accepting that Kalvin and Declan have done a fantastic job.
“I can’t say he hasn’t been frustrated by not having minutes and of course he was pushing me when he wasn’t fit and has been pushing me now he is fit. He has got back up to speed and looks physically in good condition again, so he’s still a very important player for us and you know what he brings as a leader and what he brings in terms of spirit and attitude to any team, and the impact he has on others around him. That’s very important to us.”
Henderson alongside Phillips, with Foden deputising for Mount, would be the safe, predictable and sensible way around Rice and Mount’s absences. It is most likely the way Southgate will go, though with the World Cup a year away, there are only two camps – one in June, one in September – before the tournament begins and time to build partnerships is precious. This could also be viewed as a good opportunity to blood through Jude Bellingham.
The former Birmingham prodigy’s tally of eight caps is not bad at all for an 18-year-old but his only competitive start at this level has come against Andorra. It is not as if he is not ready, given that he is turning out regularly in the Bundesliga and Champions League with Borussia Dortmund. “The games he’s just had with Ajax, for example, were a very good level of matches and he came through those very well,” Southgate noted. “Certainly the game at home, he had an outstanding performance.”
“He’s at a fantastic football club who have shown over a long period of time that they are very good at developing young players, and the Bundesliga is a good league for young players in particular because you get some games that are at a high level in terms of playing Bayern Munich, Leipzig; he’s getting Champions League football, he’s getting games that are a bit more comfortable for him and when you are developing young players that is a nice balance.”
And balance, coincidentally, is exactly what Southgate needs to find. Albania are not to be underestimated. Edoardo Reja’s side were England’s closest challengers in Group I until their late defeat to Poland in the last round of fixtures; they will play in the Nations League’s second tier next year and have a realistic hope of reaching the play-offs if they can pull off a result. If the same gaps seen against Hungary are left wide open again, this may not be so straightforward.
Southgate would rather not have to experiment again but he must. “There’s knowing the way we want to play, the right profiles for the team, the right balance for the team, all of those things come into consideration,” he said, when asked specifically about Henderson, Bellingham and the choice he must make. “But we’ve got a squad where we’re happy whoever we put on the pitch. It’s a difficult decision to make but whoever we put into the game is more than capable of not only playing at this level but having a big impact at this level.”