England Gareth Southgate says he has to “back our best players” after a dramatic draw with Germany but, as the Three Lions head to the World Cup on a six-game winless run, is the manager’s loyalty a “risk too far”?
Southgate’s side reached a European Championship final just over a year ago but England are now on their longest run without a victory since 1993 and have been relegated to the Nations League second tier.
There were, however, signs of encouragement before November’s World Cup in Qatar as the hosts came from 2-0 down to draw 3-3 with Germany at Wembley.
Goals from Luke Shaw, Mason Mount and a Harry Kane penalty looked to have turned the game in England’s favour, before Kai Havertz – who doubled Germany’s lead in the first half after Ilkay Gundogan’s opener from the spot – added his second late on to level.
Shaw and Manchester United team-mate Harry Maguire, who gave away the penalty, are among the players Southgate has been questioned for picking because of a lack of game-time for their club.
“I know everybody will focus on Harry but there were some very important moments that Harry delivered during the two matches,” said Southgate, referring also to Friday’s 1-0 defeat in Italy.
“Luke was another example of somebody that is an outstanding footballer, so what do we do? Not pick Luke Shaw because he’s not playing enough football, or do we pick a player that can do what you saw tonight?
“That’s always going to raise debate but I think in these moments we’ve got to back our best and most experienced players, unless we’re in a situation where it’s almost untenable and impossible to pick them.”
‘England players asked for meeting’
England were relegated from the Nations League top tier on Friday following their defeat by Italy in Milan and had not scored from open play in five games before Monday’s thrilling draw at Wembley.
Southgate said the performance showed his group “have really come together this week” and that is has been a “tough period for the team but they have grown”.
“One of the things was they asked could they have a meeting on their own to talk things through,” he said. “That was, for me, such a positive sign.
“The best football teams, of course, need outstanding leadership from coaching teams and everything else, but the best teams have a real core of players that drive things.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, England captain Kane added: “You saw the determination, passion and desire to wear this England shirt.
“We can have positive feelings going into the World Cup – I think you saw the real England in the last half hour of that game.”
‘Important six weeks for Maguire’
Coming into the international break, one of the talking points was who would start at centre-back, but Southgate opted to stick with Maguire, despite him being on the bench for Manchester United’s past four Premier League games.
The 29-year-old’s errors in this fixture will put his place under more scrutiny but Southgate has a history of being head strong in his decision making.
Liverpool full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold was left out of the matchday 23, with Southgate routinely preferring Reece James, Kyle Walker and Kieran Tripper over recent years despite the former’s impressive form.
James Maddison has been left of squads despite scoring seven goals and laying on another four in his last 10 Premier League games.
“Gareth is being loyal to the players who haven’t let him down in the past,” said former England striker Chris Sutton on BBC Radio 5 Live.
“What will be a bigger problem is if these guys get very little game time in the next couple of months. It will become a big issue.
“This is going to be a huge problem going into the first game. It is a big risk and maybe a risk too far.”
Former England midfielder Joe Cole added on Channel 4: “Harry Maguire was under a lot of scrutiny before the game and he made a mistake.
“The next six weeks are really important in Harry’s career. Every day is a chance to build his confidence up.”
‘Build a team around Bellingham’
A bright spark from the draw, and Friday’s defeat by Italy in Milan, was the performance of 19-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham, who won the penalty and was full of energy and quality.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder had the most touches (67), attempted the most passes (45) and completed the most accurate passes (41) by an England player.
He also had three shots – the joint most by an England player – and was a key figure in England’s high, aggressive press in the second half, making six tackles in the Germany box, the most by an England player.
Sutton said England “have to build a team around Jude Bellingham”.
“Everything Bellingham did was positive,” added Sutton. “He was always looking forward and he doesn’t take the easy option.
“Bellingham has wonderful awareness and bravery. When you have a player who is so young and talented, why wouldn’t you want to build a team around him?”
Monday’s game was Bellingham’s fifth start in six Nations League games this campaign and Everton winger Andros Townsend says he has “probably cemented his place” before the World Cup.
“He is such a special talent,” Townsend said on BBC Radio 5 Live. “He is so brave on the ball and not afraid of the occasion or who he is playing against or who is he playing for.”