Right call: Maddison impossible to ignore
Initially, I could see the logic in James Maddison not being included having been overlooked for so long by Gareth Southgate. The retort of his critics being, ‘which place does he take?’
If the Leicester playmaker was not going to be taking minutes off Mason Mount, Jack Grealish or Phil Foden, was he worth one of these coveted spots when other, weaker areas of the squad needed added insurance?
But Maddison has been ranking favourably among his England peers in all creative categories even when Leicester collectively struggled at the start of this term. He has been performing consistently for 18 months. “There should be no debate,” his manager Brendan Rodgers said at the weekend.
After three years in the international wilderness, Maddison finally gets his chance in Qatar and it is easy to understand why.
Of all the Englishmen in the top flight, only Harry Kane and Brentford striker Ivan Toney have scored more than his current tally of six in 12 appearances.
Maddison has contributed to 30 Premier League goals since the start of last season, the second highest after Kane.
Maddison was asked by Gary Neville on Monday Night Football in October about his feelings on the suggestions that he would be a “poor traveller” if left out of the matchday squad for England.
England’s World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal), Nick Pope (Newcastle).
Defenders: Kieran Trippier (Newcastle), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Kyle Walker (Man City), Benjamin White (Arsenal), Harry Maguire (Man Utd), John Stones (Man City), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Conor Coady (Everton, on loan from Wolves), Luke Shaw (Man Utd).
Midfielders: Declan Rice (West Ham), Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Kalvin Phillips (Man City), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Mason Mount (Chelsea).
Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Callum Wilson (Newcastle), Marcus Rashford (Man Utd), Raheem Sterling (Chelsea), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Phil Foden (Man City), Jack Grealish (Man City), James Maddison (Leicester City).
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he replied. “That’s almost questioning my personality and my professionalism, which is obviously quite insulting. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Southgate has always claimed to select players based on merit, though, and he has been true to his word with Maddison.
The 25-year-old is not the only one in the England fold to have made past mistakes, but the player once spotted at a casino table when England faced Czech Republic three years ago has matured immeasurably while not losing any of his sparkling swagger.
Maddison deserves his chance – he could not have done any more.
Right call: Rashford makes welcome return
Marcus Rashford has not played for England – or even been called up to the squad – since Euro 2020, when he came off the bench in the final to take a penalty he fatefully missed in the shootout.
But his return to the fold for the World Cup comes after an eye-catching rejuvenation at Manchester United under Erik ten Hag. He would probably have returned sooner, in fact, if not for the injury which kept him out of the recent Nations League games.
Rashford said recently he wasn’t in the right “headspace” last season but the new campaign has brought seven goals in 17 games (two more than he managed in 32 last term) and plenty of evidence of a player gradually returning to his blistering best.
He is of course well-known to Southgate having featured at the last two major tournaments under the 52-year-old, scoring 12 goals in 46 games for England’s senior side in total.
That experience is invaluable to a manager who prioritises chemistry and cohesion both on and off the pitch, and Rashford’s versatility will have strengthened his case further.
He is likely to feature primarily from the flanks in Qatar, as he has for Manchester United this season and for England previously, but he can also deputise for Harry Kane centrally – or even be used in tandem with the Tottenham striker.
In fact, his pace and movement in behind make him a perfect foil for Kane, who increasingly likes to drop deep and pick out runners ahead of him. It’s just another reason why Rashford is back in the squad. It would be no surprise to see him back in the team too.
On the fence: Luck on TAA’s side
Trent Alexander-Arnold can count himself lucky to be on the plane to Qatar.
Had it not been for a knee injury to Reece James and Southgate having the luxury of selecting a larger 26-man squad, then the right-back would have surely been left at home.
Alexander-Arnold may argue he deserves a slice of good fortune after missing out on Euro 2020 when he picked up a thigh injury on the eve of the tournament.
But the Liverpool defender has never been a favourite of Southgate’s, unlike his direct competition Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker, which likely leaves him as the third-choice right-back in Qatar.
The 24-year-old has also endured a difficult start to the season amid Liverpool’s inconsistent form which led to Neville questioning whether he could be trusted in a big World Cup knock-out fixture.
“Some of his distribution is out of this world, but in a knockout game could he let you down?” said Neville. Unless Trippier and Walker succumb to injury then we won’t find out this winter.
Right call: Wilson is Kane’s understudy
Every leading man needs an understudy. After months of auditions, Callum Wilson has won that race.
When the lights shine on the stage in Qatar it will be Harry Kane – hopefully – taking the plaudits and being celebrated with standing ovations. But Wilson will be backstage, waiting in the wings.
Gareth Southgate has decided Kane only needs one out-and-out back-up. Yes, Rashford can deputise through the middle if required but Wilson is a centre-forward, nothing else. The Newcastle striker has barged his way past Tammy Abraham and Ivan Toney to land this role, showing incredible steel and recovery power to work back to fitness after a hamstring issue ruled him out of the last international break. He has started the last seven Premier League games for the tubthumping Toon who are unbeaten in their last nine league matches. Wilson has eight goals in his 11 Premier League appearances this season and it’s that strike-rate that has edged him ahead of Abraham and Toney.
Wilson has made four appearances for Southgate’s England, scoring on his international debut and his only start was in a 3-0 win over the USA in 2018. As proven with the recall of Eric Dier, Southgate isn’t one to close doors on players that find form at the right time and Wilson has grabbed the opportunity for a squad place in support of Kane with both hands.
His all-action style along with his superb goalscoring touch makes him a very different option to the more refined style of Kane. Whether he gets to showcase those talents in Qatar is highly doubtful such is the reliance on Kane but to make this squad is a testament to his quality and finishing ability. If England needs him, he will be ready.
Right call: White inclusion a no-brainer
Ben White might have missed out on selection if not for James’ injury but in truth he should have been a shoo-in even with a full complement of players for Southgate to choose from.
The 25-year-old has been a key component of Arsenal’s brilliant start to the season having switched from centre-back to right-back, exhibiting an array of qualities which have made him one of the most exciting defenders in the country.
Mikel Arteta calls him “complete” and it is certainly difficult to find weaknesses in his game. White, technically excellent and assured on the ball, is also aggressive and intelligent in the way he defends. He is quick, strong in the duel and underrated aerially too.
Most important of all, though, when it comes to Southgate making his selections for Qatar, is his versatility and adaptability. Over the last three seasons, White has played on the right of a back three, in a two-man central defence, and now at right-back.
He has tackled every role expertly and Southgate should trust him deliver wherever he is needed during the tournament. White didn’t get off the bench at Euro 2020. This time should be different.
Wrong call: Tomori’s quality worthy of a place
When Fikayo Tomori made it into Gareth Southgate’s final pre-World Cup squad, he must have thought he had a good chance of making it onto the plane to Qatar this month.
The Serie A winners’ medal was still gleaming on his mantelpiece, and he had a clean sheet on his one England start under his belt against Italy in June. Realistically, there was not much more he could have done to make the squad, even if he was unlikely to see much game time.
He played well against Italy, displaying the qualities Southgate values in his defenders – comfortable on the ball, a good turn of recovery pace and physically solid. England have not conceded a single goal during the three games he has been on the pitch.
Tomori can feel a degree of extra frustration that players who have barely turned out for their clubs this season, fellow centre-back Harry Maguire among them, have been given the nod ahead of him and are near-certain to start against Iran as well.
Why has he missed out? On the back of their league win Milan’s defensive record has remained relatively solid, conceding exactly a goal a game this season, and he has started all but one of their league matches this season and continued to perform strongly.
But as we have seen before, players who do not play in the Premier League are always at a disadvantage to make their case to Southgate. And across the two games against Chelsea where he has faced English opposition this season, he found himself on the wrong end of a 4-0 defeat in one – and in the other, conceded a penalty and was sent off.
It is a harsh decision from Southgate but one which is not unexpected given his apathy towards Tomori during the near two years he has been impressing on the continent.
Wrong call: Southgate short on the left
It was rumoured that former centre-back Southgate would take an extra centre-back, but in the end he has opted for extra flair with just nine defenders named.
Tyrone Mings, Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori have all been overlooked and it is understandable given the versatility of those he has chosen – but what if Luke Shaw sustains an injury?
Kieran Trippier is a right full-back or right wing-back. Whenever he has played on the left for England, he has performed solidly but his natural tendency to come inside slows down the attack. He should be used exclusively on the right, which means Shaw is now the only option on the left of defence in the absence of Ben Chilwell.
Ryan Sessegnon, Rico Henry, Tyrick Mitchell are all specialists who may not have been part of previous squads but their ability to get on the outside of their opposite full-back – and club form – has been ignored.
Even Newcastle’s Dan Burn has shown versatility to cover off two possible positions. It could come back to haunt Southgate.
Right call: Maguire has England credit
Harry Maguire may have only started three Premier League games and played just 422 minutes of football in all competitions this season, but he was never a doubt for Gareth Southgate.
The Manchester United centre-back was a key part of the side that reached the 2018 World Cup semi-final and he was then named in the team of the tournament as England finished runners-up at Euro 2020.
Despite his lack of form and playing time along with heavy criticism of his recent performances, that credit has helped him make the 26-man squad – while a lack of top-class alternative options has also helped the 29-year-old’s case.
Whether Maguire starts for Southgate in Qatar – with fellow defenders John Stones, Eric Dier and Ben White all having far better seasons than him – is another question.
But for now having Maguire’s experience and familiarity at these international tournaments is of great value for Southgate and his squad, while the ex-Leicester defender will be hoping he can reignite his stalling career in Qatar.
On the fence: Toney unfortunate
Unfortunately, the World Cup has proved just out of reach for Ivan Toney. He received his first call-up in September – although did not make an appearance – and had been strongly linked with an inclusion.
It looked to be a straight shootout with Wilson for that back-up striker spot, but Toney’s brilliant penalty record for Brentford was not quite enough to squeeze him over the line.
The Bees may be breathing a little sigh of relief that one of their most vital players will have a chance to rest and recharge ahead of the Premier League return on Boxing Day, but fans would have loved to see their ‘bus stop in Hounslow’ represented on the world’s biggest stage.
But let’s not forget that at 26, there is still plenty of time for Toney to earn his England caps – the next Euros are less than two years away. If he continues the upward trajectory that he has been on for the last few years, there’s no doubting he will be involved in the near future.