England’s football team might not have won anything in living memory, but they’re still considered one of world football’s biggest international teams. Getting into the England team should be a privilege rather than a right, and only the very best should ever be considered for it. That being said, there are times when international selection policy leaves fans scratching their heads. That issue is squarely back in focus at the moment with manager Gareth Southgate’s latest selection for his team’s upcoming fixtures against the Republic of Ireland, Belgium, and Iceland.
The Premier League, like many leagues in Europe, looks a little strange at the moment. Massive teams like Manchester United and Manchester City are struggling to escape mid-table mediocrity. Arsenal look like two different teams from one weekend to the next. Leicester City, Aston Villa, and Everton look like contenders for Champions League qualification. There are English players who appear to be in the best form of their careers within those teams. Despite that, they appear to be struggling to gain entry to Southgate’s squads – and even when they do, they’re rarely selected for the starting lineup.
One school of thought is that a team is more than just the sum of its parts. A star player should not be considered in isolation. The way they ‘fit in’ alongside their potential teammates also has to be considered. It’s a little like trying to win something from a game at an online slots website. If we were to use “Football Hero” – one of the more popular football-themed online slots – as an example, you wouldn’t win anything just by landing the most valuable symbol in the game on its own. It’s only worth something if it lines up alongside symbols that connect with it to generate a payout. While there’s less random chance involved in putting a football team together than there is in winning something while playing casino with playtech, the principle remains the same. The players have to work in tandem. The issue with the current England setup is that there are two players who have already demonstrated that they work together in perfect harmony, and they’re not getting a look in.
The two players we’re thinking about are Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley, both of whom play as attacking midfielders at Aston Villa. The question of why Grealish isn’t playing more has already been asked multiple times and doesn’t yet have a satisfactory answer. It took him far longer than it ought to have done even to finally get a call up to the national team, and now he’s in the squad, he barely sees the pitch. On the one start he’s been given, he was excellent. He’s offered more threat when appearing from the bench than the rest of the midfield put together. That doesn’t appear to be enough to keep him in Southgate’s plans. Mason Mount, who has thus far been anonymous at Chelsea this season, is ahead of him in the queue for reasons that are best known to Southgate alone.
The case of Ross Barkley is even stranger. When Barkley was at Chelsea, he was regularly selected for the England team even when he wasn’t in Chelsea’s first eleven. Now he’s at Aston Villa and playing what many people consider to be the best football of his career, he’s not even being selected for the squad. Even when injuries happen and players are forced to withdraw, as has been the case for James Ward-Prowse this month, other players are selected instead. Southgate chose to call up 17-year-old Jude Bellingham
The criticism of Southgate’s selection policy isn’t reserved for outfield players. His persistence with Everton’s out-of-form Jordan Pickford in goal has also raised eyebrows among fans. Pickford’s poor performances have become such a concern at club level that Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti has brought in a replacement in the shape of Sweden’s Robin Olsen in the hope that the competition will force Pickford to up his game. No such concerns appear to have arisen in Southgate’s mind despite the fact that Burnley’s Nick Pope is available. Harry Maguire, enduring a nightmarish start to the season at Manchester United, is also still a first-choice pick at the expense of Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings and Everton’s Michael Keane. Every time an England team takes to the field, it appears to be made up of players who are there more because of the club they play for than the form they’re in.
So long as England achieve their objectives – which means putting in a strong performance at the 2021 European Championships and qualifying comfortably for the 2022 World Cup – Southgate will likely keep his job. His continuing omission of some of the country’s most promising players, though, is beginning to rankle with fans, and especially fans of the teams that the players belong to. While the likable manager was the toast of the country after England’s unlikely run to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, some fans are now wondering how much of that run was down to luck rather than judgment. The team didn’t come up against any serious opposition until they met Croatia in the semi-finals, and when they did, they were eliminated. On social media, supporters are beginning to wonder whether Southgate has the nerve to make difficult calls with players when the occasion calls on him to do so.
For Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley, the situation must be disheartening. Grealish turned down an offer to play for the Republic of Ireland when he chose England and must surely have had days when he’s wondered whether that was the right decision. Barkley, having been in the team before and then been cut out from it while playing better than he has in years, must be wondering what else he has to do. From a results point of view, all seems well with England. From a fan satisfaction point of view, things are anything but.