Debate goes on but Southgate should know his best England squad by now

Sport

There is a tendency in international football to focus not on who is in the team but who is out of it. There is little thought for how an XI might function and a lot of outrage about the supposedly disgraceful treatment of those who have been left out, a tendency that reached fresh heights of absurdity last October when England beat the No 1 ranked team in the world, Belgium, and much of the post-match chatter was still about how Jack Grealish should have played.

So pervasive is the tendency that even Gareth Southgate became involved on Tuesday, leaving out as few players as possible by naming a 33-man provisional squad that he will cut down to 26 next week. The only real decisions to have been made are the omissions of Eric Dier, Michael Keane, Danny Ings and Patrick Bamford – and even then the preference for Ollie Watkins over Bamford and Ings was in effect made in March when the Aston Villa forward came off the bench in the World Cup qualifier against San Marino.

To that extent, waiting before selecting the final squad could be seen as indecisiveness, but ruthlessness is perhaps an overrated quality in leadership. Twelve players will join the squad late because of their involvement in this week’s European finals, while Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips are carrying ankle and shoulder problems respectively, Jordan Henderson is returning from a groin injury and Grealish has only just made his comeback after a lengthy absence with a shin complaint. There is a need for cover, even just to make training worthwhile this week.

The uncapped central defensive Bens, White and Godfrey, and the fourth keeper Aaron Ramsdale will almost certainly drop out as soon as England are quorate. There is the potential for awkward moments next week, although no one involved seems likely to go full Paul Gascoigne in La Manga when, despite the use of Kenny G to try to create a soothing atmosphere, he smashed up a hotel room after being told by Glenn Hoddle that he would not be part of the final squad for the 1998 World Cup.

If there are fitness problems, though, it is surely better for Southgate to let players think they were always part of his plans than to have to recall them from holiday. No one wants to be Trevor Sinclair shuttling back and forth to Japan in 2002.

Where there are real debates to be had, why would Southgate not take the opportunity to assess fitness and form as late as possible? The greatest of those debates is at right-back. After being left out of the squad in March, Trent Alexander-Arnold was included in the 33 but faces a battle with Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James to make the final squad.

Alexander-Arnold is, without question, an enormously gifted player, but may not be the right sort of right-back for Southgate. To talk about his improved form in the second half of the season or his defensive qualities is slightly beside the point: he naturally operates in a relatively advanced position, which is how he has been able to contribute 32 assists over the past three league seasons.

To ask him to operate deeper would be to negate the great strength of his game, but playing high means there is space behind him that opponents can exploit – as Toni Kroos did so successfully in the first half of the first leg of Liverpool’s Champions League defeat to Real Madrid. Liverpool at their best are able to guard against that problem with their pressing: the trouble against Madrid was less the space Kroos was targeting than the fact he had several seconds to measure his pass.

Given the lack of time available to international managers, and given the Euros are likely to be characterised by exhausted players – something acknowledged by the increase in squad size – Southgate may perhaps reason he cannot achieve the required level of pressing and so Alexander-Arnold is not worth the gamble when there are three high-quality, less-attacking right-backs available.

Those broad tactical issues are questions Southgate has hopefully already resolved by now – which is why, for all that flexibility is usually an admirable trait, his switch from a back three to a back four in March could be concerning. The next few days should be about fine-tuning and answering specific questions about fitness and form. If they are about anything more fundamental than that, England are probably doomed whoever they pick.