When Gareth Southgate announced his squad for England’s trips to Rijeka and Seville, his decision to call up Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and James Maddison was hailed as “arguably the boldest of his reign”. After the “continuity” of September, October brought sweeping changes.
But in many ways, Southgate did not have much choice. The squad that achieved England’s best World Cup finish in 28 years has seen relatively little action so far this season and a look at their minutes at club level suggests some are at risk of fading from view.
On average, members of England’s World Cup squad have played only 52 per cent of minutes in their club’s elite-level fixtures – i.e. Premier League and Champions League – this season. Even when taking all competitions into account, this figure rises by just one percentage point.
There are mitigating factors. Several returned late from the World Cup and were eased into the new campaign. Others, like Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli and Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard, have only missed out on playing time through injury and can be confident of seeing regular action with both club and country once fully fit.
Of course, some are no longer in contention, no matter how much they play. Jamie Vardy announced his retirement from international football last month. Gary Cahill and Ashley Young are willing to serve if needed but have otherwise been put out to pasture.
Three more, though – Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Phil Jones and Fabian Delph – have all struggled for playing time with their clubs and paid the price internationally. Loftus-Cheek’s predicament has received the most attention. His 99 minutes, a mere 33 of which have come in the Premier League, is the fewest of any outfield England World Cup player.
Injury prevented Jones from selection in Southgate’s last squad but the United centre-half recovered and has not been seen since missing the decisive penalty in his side’s EFL Cup shoot-out defeat to Derby County on 25 September. The uncapped Lewis Dunk was called up ahead of him following James Tarkowski’s withdrawal.
Delph is carrying a slight knock, but was by no means assured of retaining his spot after completing less than a quarter of City’s minutes at the start of the new season. Pep Guardiola has found little use for his dependable utility man so far. Come November, Southgate may have no room for him either.
Altogether, of the nine players to travel to Russia and miss out on this current squad, only Alli and Lingard can be confident of winning their place back in time for the internationals against the United States and Croatia.
Marcus Rashford, Danny Rose and Danny Welbeck should be concerned too, despite all making the cut on this occasion. Rashford has played 380 club minutes so far, less than 40 per cent of United’s total. Welbeck has completed six minutes more but he is surely at risk unless he suddenly forces his way into Unai Emery’s thinking.
Rose, who withdrew from the current squad through injury on Thursday, still finds himself behind Ben Davies at Tottenham and he is now at risk at international level from the resurgence of Luke Shaw and the emergence of Ben Chilwell.
The positive news for Southgate is that the majority of his core group – those who started the semi-final against Croatia – are playing regularly for their clubs. It will be a concern, though, that even Jordan Henderson and John Stones are playing fewer minutes than players of their status might expect.
Of Henderson’s 10 Liverpool appearances, five have come from the substitutes’ bench amid increased competition in Jurgen Klopp’s midfield. Stones is likely to establish himself as one of Guardiola’s first-choice centre-halves in the future but for now, he too remains subject to rotation, having started just half of City’s Premier League games.
The squad for Croatia and Spain is by and large playing regularly, featuring in two-thirds of club minutes on average this season. Even so, some of the key, new call-ups are not yet fully established. Ross Barkley has managed 280 Premier League minutes under Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea. Watford’s Nathaniel Chalobah has played just four. Even Sancho, despite impressing at Borussia Dortmund, has started just one Bundesliga game.
Southgate’s message at his September squad announcement was that English players simply were not getting enough regular opportunities at club level and his job was becoming harder as a result. He refrained from making the same point this month, but not because of some sudden change in circumstances.
The break-up of England’s World Cup squad has begun – perhaps a bit earlier than expected – and Southgate’s worry will be that neither the old guard nor the next generation are getting the necessary opportunities.
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