Eighty days until the England team fly to the World Cup, Gareth Southgate leant back in his chair at the Steigenberger hotel in Amsterdam and insisted he was “not concerned”. But was he ever going to admit the opposite? England are still looking for a standout goalkeeper and have an experimental defence, a guessing game about who might be captain and no obvious plan. Jack Wilshere has just reminded English football why it was always silly to think of him as a national saviour and the only striker who would usually be guaranteed a first-team place was last seen on crutches. Apart from that, everything is going swimmingly.
A slightly downbeat tone, perhaps, but when Southgate admitted his team were “still a work in progress” it certainly felt like an understatement. Southgate’s job is to sound positive but at this stage, after 16 months in the job, it is not encouraging to find so many places in England’s team still up for grabs, so many questions unanswered, so many players unproven and, frankly, so many holes in the side, from back to front.
Defence, just for starters. When England landed at Schiphol airport the travelling squad comprised five centre-backs with a total of 27 caps – and 22 of those belong to John Stones, who has lost his place at Manchester City.
Southgate had previously stated that any player who was not featuring regularly for his club side could not expect to play for his country. That policy has had to be shelved for the time being, which has also meant Danny Rose and Joe Gomez retaining their places in the squad. Eric Dier, who is expected to begin the night in midfield, could also play in defence at some stage, with Southgate sticking to his belief that a 3-4-3 system is England’s best hope.
Everything considered, perhaps it is a good thing that England’s opponents in the Johan Cruyff Arena have endured some difficult times of their own in recent years. In ordinary circumstances, Rose would be a mandatory pick as one of the wing-backs. These, however, are not ordinary circumstances when Rose has drifted to the edges at Spurs this season, meaning Ashley Young might get the nod for the left-sided role.
As for Wilshere, Southgate admitted it was “certainly not an ideal situation” now the Arsenal midfielder has had to stay in England because of a problem with the tendon in a knee. At least it is not one of Wilshere’s ankles that is causing the problem this time. Yet the sense of deja vu is overwhelming and, unfortunately for Wilshere, his injury record meant no one really believed Southgate when he said there was still an outside hope the player could be involved against Italy on Tuesday. Perhaps Wilshere will prove us wrong but these are the moments when we are reminded his body is too fragile for him to be thought of as the player around whom England should arrange their plans.
Equally, it becomes easier to understand why Wilshere is built up that way given the other options. No offence to Jake Livermore but it does not reflect well on England that Southgate’s plans for midfield could involve a player for almost-relegated West Bromwich Albion who, by the manager’s own admission, is having a difficult season.
It was certainly noticeable that Southgate spoke with greater clarity about the politics surrounding Russia, the security issues facing the World Cup and his belief that English football needed to “get our own house in order” when it came to racism, than he did when discussing his own plans, or even giving a rough idea about when he might let everyone know the captain. He is right to think the role of armband-wearer is overplayed in the media. Equally, the mystery he has attached to the position just adds to the sense that England’s plans are a long way behind where they should be.
The message from the manager was that this was the time for the players who might not have expected this opportunity – not least the two new centre-backs in the squad, James Tarkowski and Alfie Mawson – to show him they deserved to go to Russia.
“I can remember speaking with Harry Maguire after his first game with us,” Southgate said. “The temptation in the first game is always that you go out not to make a mistake. That’s fine as a starting point, but what I really want to see is you go out and play as you do for your club, and at a level I believed you can perform at. If you go out there just not to make mistakes, a) you’ll make one, and b) you’ll not be as good as you can be. The players have to go out and just go for it, believe in the ability they have.”
It was a fine speech, as they often are with England’s manager, but Southgate did not argue when it was put to him that there were still a lot of jigsaw pieces missing, and that it was impossible for him to say otherwise.