Of the four ‘strikers’ named by Gareth Southgate in his first England squad, only one had started their latest Premier League game as an actual striker. And quite frankly he (Jamie Vardy) was sh*t. Of the remaining three, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge began their matches on the bench and Marcus Rashford was pushed wide to leave room for the Zlatan. Elsewhere in the Premier League, both Olivier Giroud and Vincent Janssen have had their considerable bottoms benched in favour of mobility; of the 12 players who have notched four or more top-flight goals this season, only five would class themselves as strikers. Harry Kane’s absence from that list means we should not unduly mourn his unavailability.
There are those who believe Troy Deeney should have been the beneficiary of Kane’s injury, but the winner in this situation could really be Southgate. Ridiculously, Kane’s seemingly untouchable status as England’s great white hope means that he would have had little choice but to pick the Tottenham man, regardless of six not just goalless but largely hopeless performances in an England shirt. When you’re auditioning for a job that barely anybody believes you are qualified to do, it helps to be given free reign to do something impressive. If Southgate has been watching the Premier League at all this season – and we rather hope he has – he will know that fluidity is key to all the cooing. Without an in-form (or out-of-form) front-line striker, he is free to pitch for a place in that club.
Manchester City were phenomenal against Manchester United with tactics that saw Kevin De Bruyne probe for weaknesses while Kelechi Iheanacho pulled left or right to make space, Arsenal destroyed Chelsea with the movement of Alexis Sanchez and a rejuvenated Theo Walcott, Liverpool have been a swarming phenomenon with Roberto Firmino the most advanced of an ever-switching triumvirate, and Tottenham made City look ordinary with an energetic front five missing a focal point. While throwback strikers Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa have scored goals, the plaudits have been reserved for managers elsewhere…and those managers have plans that involve something more imaginative than a big man up top and pace on the wings.
Unfortunately, we have to assume at this point that Wayne Rooney will start for England and probably in an advanced midfield role that is marginally the least worst option. That leaves three attacking slots – though against Malta, there really should be eight or nine attacking slots – to fill. The loss of Raheem Sterling is a genuine blow, but the strength of Southgate’s first squad is in the wide positions, with Walcott, Andros Townsend, Michail Antonio, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jesse Lingard being joined by striker/wingers Marcus Rashford and Daniel Sturridge. All can play wide, most have played centrally and none have played consistently in one fixed position.
Walcott is the fascinating name in that collection, a wannabe striker finally accepting his place is on the wing and that hard work is required to avoid becoming a career nearly man. He has been thriving at Arsenal not simply because he has a new attitude, but because he has a new striker. When Sanchez searches for space, he leaves it for Walcott to drift inside; when you’re a winger who really wants to be a striker, that’s a gift. Can Southgate recreate that for England? The signs in Rashford’s England Under-21 debut under Southgate were encouraging – he naturally drifted left and found willing allies in Nathan Redmond and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. In Walcott, Rashford and Sturridge, England could conceivably have a trio of players whose movement could befuddle better defenders than those of Malta.
The headlines all claimed that Tottenham and England suffered a ‘Kane blow’ last month, but Mauricio Pochettino has seen his absence as an opportunity for innovation. Can Southgate do the same? It would be a shame to trundle past Malta 3-0 without seeing any indication that England’s new leader has been watching and learning from the Premier League’s great managers.