Gareth Southgate believes the increased competition for places generated within the England squad, born of his determination to promote youth, will ensure players think twice about withdrawing from squads.
The national manager will recall Joe Hart, Kyle Walker and Gary Cahill to his starting lineup for the friendly against Brazil on Tuesday night, but Ruben Loftus-Cheek is expected to retain a place in midfield after his hugely encouraging debut against Germany. Lewis Cook and Dominic Solanke, key performers in the under-20s’ World Cup success over the summer but inexperienced at Premier League level, will hope for involvement from the bench, while Marcus Rashford, now 20, should start and Joe Gomez will gain a second cap at some stage after his substitute appearance last Friday.
Loftus-Cheek, a player who has made only 12 top-flight starts and is on loan at Crystal Palace, would have been picked for the last two World Cup qualifiers in October had he been fit but the youngsters called up to the current squad are effectively making the most of the withdrawal of eight seniors with various knocks and niggles. The FA’s medical staff were satisfied by the validity of those injuries, for all that the players would expect to feature for their clubs this weekend. Chelsea’s Danny Drinkwater turned down the chance to join up after suffering a relapse of a calf problem.
Southgate has already handed out 13 debuts in as many matches in charge. Asked if the praise heaped on new faces such as Loftus-Cheek and Jordan Pickford since Friday’s draw with the World Cup holders might mean players consider the wider picture before dropping out, he said: “Yes, that’s what you want to get to as a team, that the competition for places is so intense. [Philippe] Coutinho hasn’t played for a few weeks for Liverpool but he is there for Brazil. I imagine part of that is because he is thinking: ‘If I’m not there and I’m not playing and someone else goes in, do I get the shirt back?’ Maybe we haven’t had that but I think, moving forward, we will have, and I think that will affect people’s approach definitely.
“Someone said to me, ‘[the emergence of young talent] is causing you selection headaches’. No, because you want competition for places. The best way to get the maximum out of a player is competition for your place and no opportunity to take [your foot] off the gas in training or in any of the matches. And then you have to perform. You support people in difficult moments but, equally, when you have got that competition it drives the level of training. The energy in training has been high.”
England have beaten Brazil only once since 1990, with Southgate describing the team ranked No2 in the world as “a juggernaut”. While the hope is the home side build on the promise displayed against Germany, there is a realism among the management staff – and within the FA – that short-term results may be risked in favour of long-term development. “The more you beat those top teams then, of course, you take that confidence with you, but I have to balance our desire to win games with some experimentation that does mean you do risk results,” Southgate said. “We could set up to play a certain way to give ourselves a better chance of winning any individual game, with more experienced players.
“We could take the short-term view regarding who might be more experienced going into a tournament and have more big-match experience, or we think outside the box and have a look at a few players we want to find out more about and see how they cope. There’s something bigger I’m working for than just getting results in the short-term and my own personal ambitions. If you’re a coach your mindset has to be to help people improve and maximise what’s possible. It is the right decision for England.
“When it comes to the World Cup, I will go with what I think is the best squad. At the moment, I believe the best would include a lot those young players. It’s easy to be swayed at times by needing experience, but you can have 100 experiences of the same thing or 10 different experiences that make you a more rounded person. These young players have also had experience of winning youth tournaments, playing high-level matches, and challenges to get to where they are in their path. So they’ve had to show some resilience of their own.
“We’d love to have a team full of players who have won the Champions League but we haven’t got that. But I want players who will be fearless, prepared to have the ball and show what they are capable of on the biggest stage.”