The excitement may have been dulled, while the gripes and moans will need to be held back until the final 26-man squad is confirmed next Tuesday, but it was hard to argue against Gareth Southgate’s conservative rationale for naming a 33-man provisional England selection ahead of next month’s European Championship.
By doing so he swerved a volley of awkward questions around his decisions and, more importantly, bought some time because of a unique set of circumstances brought on by a dozen of his players being involved in European finals this week. The complaints will no doubt follow when it is confirmed which seven fringe figures are chopped next Tuesday but, for now, the extended hope is enough for the goodwill to flow.
“Our situation is more complicated than any other country at the moment,” Southgate said an hour after the squad was released, which was just about enough time to digest the entire list. “We’ve known for a while that we have, of this 33, 12 players in European finals this week. So we were going to need some additional players for the first part of our camp. Add to that we’ve got some injuries that are at various stages.
“We felt that more time is going to help us make better decisions. I’ve always said my preference would be to name the squad as a 26. That’s always a preferable situation but we’ve not got an ideal hand of cards this time and there are a lot of unknowns.”
The most notable inclusion was Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Liverpool star recalled as one of four potential right-backs, and the omission of Eric Dier in favour of two previously uncapped young centre backs stood out as the closest thing to a shock.
There remains a sense that one of Alexander-Arnold, Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier, Chelsea’s Reece James and Manchester City’s Kyle Walker will not be sticking around but the fact that the latter pair are not set to link up until at least two days’ after the UEFA deadline may indicate they are safe.
“What I would say is you’re looking at four right-backs but I just see four good footballers,” Southgate said when asked about the depth before detailing the different secondary roles each player can perform.
Beyond personnel, this is a very young group featuring a number of highly-talented but not very experienced players. The oldest member of the squad is Walker, who turns 31 on Friday, with Jordan Henderson and Kieran Trippier the only others to have bid farewell to their 20s. Less than half of the 33, are in double figures for caps won. Four are uncapped and four more have only appeared as substitutes.
One of the quartet of goalkeepers, most likely Aaron Ramsdale, will be cut, and Southgate’s references to Ben White and Ben Godfrey gaining experience with the group seemed pointed towards them not being part of the 26.
Regardless of the seven who end up getting dropped a week from now, this is a squad that was always going to appear a little lop-sided. There are justifiable defensive concerns – focused around a lack of depth at centre back – that are offset by depth in attack that is rivalled by few other national team squads.
Harry Maguire, once fit, and John Stones have long been pencilled in as the first-choice centre back partnership, even though Fikayo Tomori and Dier will be justified if they felt a little frustration when they learnt of their omissions.
Perhaps Tomori’s outstanding form for Milan, who finished second in Serie A, has gone under the radar a little and it cannot have helped that Southgate or any of his coaching staff have been unable to watch him in person due to travel restrictions.
Dier has looked shaky for Spurs and was the only outfield player in March’s squad not to get a minute of action. But he has been an important glue guy and possesses the versatility that Southgate so often highlights as a vital component of his players’ make up.
The puzzle for Southgate now is settling on his strongest composition in attack. Working off the likelihood of a 4-2-3-1 formation, Mason Mount, Harry Kane and Phil Foden appear to be dead certs for the Croatia game. That leaves one remaining place and it is impossible to settle on who gets the nod.
Friendlies against Austria and Romania will help but the Chelsea and Manchester City players being unavailable for at least the former complicates matters.
Does that put Raheem Sterling at a disadvantage? While he has been a go-to player for Southgate, the 26-year-old has been significantly less prolific for City in recent months, scoring once since February.
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood will sit out the Austria game, too, because of their involvement in tomorrow night’s Europa League final against Villarreal, although the former is another lock to be in the 26.
Jadon Sancho ended the German season with four goals and two assists in his final three starts and may be considered the favourite to take the remaining undecided starting spot, especially considering there remains a question mark over Jack Grealish’s match sharpness following injury. Ollie Watkins and Bukayo Saka, notably listed as a forward, have been included in the 33 but are candidates to drop out.
Of course Southgate has known the nucleus of his starting XI for several months and the remaining decisions are merely around the back-up options. Then again, as he said at lunchtime: “Information and evidence is really important when you’re making decisions and we’ll have a lot more in the next seven days.” At which point the complaints over omissions can really begin.
England’s 33-man provisional squad
Goalkeepers Dean Henderson, Sam Johnstone, Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale.
Defenders Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Chilwell, Conor Coady, Ben Godfrey, Reece James, Harry Maguire, Tyrone Mings, Luke Shaw, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Ben White.
Midfielders Jude Bellingham, Jordan Henderson, Jesse Lingard, Mason Mount, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice, James Ward-Prowse.
Forwards Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Mason Greenwood, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Ollie Watkins.
Source by Football London