Maguire? Phillips! Where’s Player X?! Anger shows Southgate made biggest England mistake in 2017

Matt Stead
England's Gareth Southgate and Harry Maguire

When a naive, inexperienced Gareth Southgate said he would pick England squads on form instead of reputation, he made a rod for the back of his entire reign.

 

The football landscape was almost unrecognisable when Gareth Southgate meticulously constructed the rod which has sat uncomfortably between his shoulder blades ever since.

“I never pick on reputation – form has to come into it,” he told the Daily Telegraph in an exclusive interview, his first as permanent England manager, wisely currying favour with the outlet which orchestrated his predecessor’s downfall.

More than six years later, it remains the quote most often cited by Southgate’s detractors whenever the club season is interrupted, international football clumsily reconvenes and everyone forces themselves to pretend to care about England outside of a major tournament setting.

The names change every time – a point the irony of which the disparagers will never recognise – but the criticism is as consistent as it is dense. ‘Where’s [insert player doing well currently]?’ they seethe. ‘Thought Gareth was picking players on form?’ they pontificate with three chin-scratching emojis. The constant thirst for a gotcha moment is tiresome (says the website which publishes Mediawatch).

In March 2023 it is Ollie Watkins, Lewis Dunk and Solly March. In November 2022 it was James Ward-Prowse and Ivan Toney. That March it was Eric Dier, Dan Burn and Tyrick Mitchell. The previous November it was Emile Smith Rowe and Benjamin White. And it is always Fikayo sodding Tomori.

They are all heirs to the Grant Holt throne. They are the flavours of the month whose omissions leave a sour taste. They are phenomenal footballers but ones not picked at that stage, if indeed at all, for a variety of reasons.

This England pool is not one Southgate dips his toe into every three months like the rest of us. He does not compose his squad by watching those rare editions of Match of the Day with all the goals in while jotting down the names of the first 20 or so Englishmen he sees before nipping out for a quick pint. It is his job to pore over these selections; to constantly monitor a vast array of options; to identify those who do or do not suit his preferred system or style; to gauge the suitability of certain characters in a camp or dressing room; to judge over months and years instead of days and weeks.

He has to maintain a healthy level of churn instead of ripping it all up every few months. The idea that Southgate must pick an entirely different squad from spring to autumn based on form each year is wilfully stupid.

The Harry Maguire situation has been explained numerous times yet it still creates manufactured confusion. Kalvin Phillips is in for the same reasons of trust and familiarity, not to mention a paucity of options. Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson, too. These are cornerstones of teams which reached tournament semi-finals and finals and won crucial games in the process. And no amount of quoting something Southgate said as a more naive, less experienced and frankly far worse manager will change that.

Perhaps the 52-year-old regrets opening that can of worms six years ago. Even on Thursday he was asked whether he “found it just too difficult to stick to that idealist philosophy”.

“It’s impossible,” Southgate replied. “We’ve got to pick our best players where possible, and then there’s a balance between do you go with a certain level of player who’s not playing quite as regularly, or a level of player who’s physically fit and doing well.”

It was a point he made at the time in February 2017, saying, “I’ve got to get the balance right” and “you have to look at the opposition and the type of game you’re expecting and select the players best suited to that”. Only a fool would argue. But it is the reputation versus form line which has stuck ever since, made at a time when The Clamour to build around reigning champions Danny Drinkwater, Marc Albrighton, Demarai Gray and Danny Simpson must have been real.

Southgate has his favourites, those trusted lieutenants who have more leeway than others. Any good international manager should – it’s how Miroslav Klose became the record World Cup goalscorer and Fabio Grosso gloriously crowned an otherwise middling career. Maybe Germany supporters protested when Martin Max was only on the stand-by list in 2002; Italy fans might have dissented at Manuel Pasqual’s non-inclusion four years later. But the calls were as justified as Southgate’s are now.

It is worth wondering what would happen if the disingenuous cries for form to trump everything were actually heeded. To be fair, going into Euro qualifiers with an XI of Fraser Forster; Kieran Trippier, Lewis Dunk, Ben Mee, Rico Henry; Joe Willock, Harrison Reed, Morgan Gibbs-White; Solly March, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford would be incredible fun. And not at all laughed at by the same laborious critics echoing the same tired complaints.