Gareth Southgate, the manager who began as a stop-gap caretaker and promptly guided England to a World Cup semi-final and to within a penalty shoot-out of winning the European Championship, has remained largely loyal to the core of players who served him at those tournaments in naming his squad for Qatar 2022.
But Southgate did make use of Fifa’s expanded squad size - up from 23 to 26 - to include some mercurial selections.
James Maddison of Leicester City has been rewarded for his excellent form, a surprise call-up that will satisfy those who believe England lack creative alternatives in the position behind centre-forward Harry Kane.
Maddison has contributed six goals and four assists his 12 league outings for Leicester in what has been a difficult season for his club. "We think he can give us something different,” said Southgate, who gave Maddison his last and only England cap in 2019.
Another unexpected pick is Conor Gallagher, the Chelsea midfielder, less on the basis of his recent club impact than the significant progress the 22-year-old has made over the last 12 months.
Gallagher had a breakthrough 2021/22 on loan at Crystal Palace and some promising cameos since returning to his parent club. Finding a regular spot in an England midfield where youth is already well represented in West Ham United’s Declan Rice and Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham may be tough but Southgate believes he will add useful energy from the bench.
“We’ve got to refresh the players, excite them,” said Southgate, who has concerns over some players’ recovery from recent injuries - notably midfielder Kalvin Phillips and full-back Kyle Walker - and general fatigue, given the compressed domestic calendar in the lead-up to this first November-December World Cup. On the eve of the announcement of the squad, Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte drew attention to the tiredness of Spurs’ Kane, England’s captain.
“I’m sure he is [tired],” said Southgate, whose back-ups for Kane at centre-forward are Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, who can also operate from wider positions, and Newcastle’s Callum Wilson, the latter preferred to Tammy Abraham of Roma.
How England qualified
“We’ve got some that need to train and some that will benefit from a few days of doing nothing,” added the England manager, thinking especially of his defensive positions. The importance of Walker, who has been out of action for over month, is the all greater as Chelsea’s Reece James, a Southgate favourite at right wing-back, was ruled out of the Qatar trip with injury. Harry Maguire is short of game-time, partly because of injury absences and partly because he no longer commands an automatic first-team place at Manchester United.
“He’s one of our best centre-backs,” insisted Southgate of Maguire, arguing that loyalty to those - among them Walker and Maguire - who took England into the late stages of the last two tournaments was to be expected. “You have to have some consistency in your thinking. It’s hard to build without that. If you have got to a final [at the Euros] 18 months ago, there should be a fair amount of stability, but also room for people playing well to come into the group.”
Other than the prodigious Bellingham, all of England’s chosen 26 are employed in the Premier League, and while Southgate appreciates the benefits to the national team of English football’s wealth and success at elite club level, there is a downside. So much international buying power means that less than a third of Premier League players on a typical weekend are eligible to play for England.
Even some of those who were eligible, and have come through the English club system, can end up with different national teams. Just ahead of Southgate’s list of 26 being revealed, two of England’s group-stage opponents in Qatar revealed their squads. The USA, who England meet in the second match after an opening fixture against Iran, will build their midfield around Valencia’s Yunus Musah, formerly of Arsenal’s youth set-up and, as a young teenager, in the same England age-group sides as Bellingham. That was before London-raised Musah chose to represent the US, where he was born.
Eight of the US squad play for English clubs, the leading light and probable captain for the World Cup Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic.
Twenty-one members of the first Wales party to go to a World Cup finals since 1958 are, less surprisingly, with English clubs. Several in their squad represented England at junior level. Wales, who play England in the final Group B match, will be led in Qatar by the most successful British footballing export of the 21st century, Gareth Bale, who won five Champions League titles in his nine years at Real Madrid. Bale goes to the World Cup fresh from having helped his new club, Los Angeles FC to victory in the MLS Cup final last weekend.