Everton anger around Branthwaite is fair but England evolution has stunned Southgate as well

Matt Stead
Jack Grealish, Gareth Southgate and Jarrad Branthwaite in England training
The England squad for Euro 2024 is refreshingly bold

Gareth Southgate has been bold and brave with his Euro 2024 squad for the most part. Jarrad Branthwaite was an unfortunate victim of his only ‘safe’ call.

 

When Gareth Southgate spoke of how England were “evolving” and “refreshing” their team between tournaments in the summer of 2023, it felt a little as though he was discussing a different team.

The 25 players he had selected for European qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia featured 20 who were picked for the World Cup six months prior. Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka were the youngest by age but certainly not experience. Only four outfielders with five caps or fewer were chosen, with 31-year-old Lewis Dunk and James Maddison and Callum Wilson – both of whom watched the disappointing quarter-final defeat to France from the bench – among them.

Marc Guehi was the only real example of “evolution” in the early stages of a qualifying campaign which featured starts for Maddison, Kalvin Phillips, Jordan Henderson and Ben Chilwell.

The picture is clearer heading into Euro 2024. Twelve of England’s 26 players are headed to their first international tournament. Five received their first cap this calendar year. Two of the starting XI and all four substitutes who were used in England’s last major tournament match are nowhere to be seen. An unlucky 13 of those picked for the 2022 World Cup have not made the cut for Euro 2024.

It is a ludicrous amount of churn and change from a manager so frequently criticised for simply relying on his core group of favourites. Only ten of the 20 players Southgate has used most often as England manager will be with him in Germany. This is not a conservative, conventional or comfortable squad; difficult decisions have been made throughout.

If manager and national team were not so inexorably linked, these choices would carry the air of a coach’s final tournament squad: some necessary relics of a genuinely successful past, unshakeable faith in those to whom the present belongs, and more than a few nods to an exciting, invigorating future.

There are always holes to pick if one examines and scrutinises closely enough. Adam Wharton and Kobbie Mainoo are middle fingers aimed at those who continue to use the sentiments Southgate expressed in his first England interview against him. The ‘form versus reputation’ argument has been decimated by the way in which Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson – eventually have been cast aside.

Both players made it easier for Southgate through their own personal decisions, but no-one can pretend their 112 international caps had to be replaced by two players who began the season as teenagers without a Premier League career start between them.

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There is ‘shock’ at the omission of Jack Grealish, but it is perfectly justifiable. England are unnervingly blessed in attack and those he is in direct competition against have had far better seasons. The same goes for Marcus Rashford, however ‘different’ the qualities they offer from what was only ever going to be a place on the bench anyway.

Southgate will soon realise The Clamour itself cannot be avoided, for it will only transfer to another player. But fair play to him for at least trying to be proactive.

When the biggest controversy is Dunk being chosen over Jarrad Branthwaite and Ivan Toney beating Dominic Solanke to a spot as the non-playing striker back-up, it speaks volumes.

The Harry Maguire injury seemingly opened the door for Branthwaite as the left-sided centre-half, but simultaneously shut it on the grounds that England were losing one of their more trusted players. The suspicion remains that Dunk is far from international elite quality but he is an older head who has simply been around the squad more. Despite the protestations of Everton supporters, it is not an indefensible call without reason.

The problem for Southgate – and it is curious considering articulation and communication has been perhaps his greatest strength in the role – is the public explanations he offers.

Can it really be “a bit early” for a centre-half with Champions League experience who has just completed his second full season of elite top-flight football? Why do “we need players who are fit and ready to go from the start” when it comes to Maguire, but not Luke Shaw or the handful of other players with injury concerns?

Those are irritating inconsistencies that come with the intricacies of subjective decisions over a 26-man squad. At least they are opinions with some form of rationalisation; the Henderson hill-dying remains a regrettable, avoidable and wilfully offensive misstep in this otherwise bold and brave cycle.

And in fairness to Southgate, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted the speed of that midfield evolution especially in the months since. “Sometimes you perhaps regenerate the group more than you were expecting a couple of months ago,” the manager said on Thursday. He deserves credit for riding those waves of momentum rather than trying to fight the tide.

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