The Three England players who must impress Gareth Southgate this week
International windows are increasingly suffering from a lack of fan interest, but that doesn’t make them unimportant, and three England players in particular will be desperate to take their chance over the next week - writes Tom Bennett.
Games against Germany and Lithuania will give the England players a chance to impress their new manager, with the two games posing very different challenges but both offering opportunities.
Gareth Southgate’s first England squad was greeted with little more than a disinterested shrug from all but the most fanatical Three Lions supporters, but there were some interesting elements to the new boss’ selection: the inclusion of Jermain Defoe; the decision to omit Wayne Rooney (despite the former England captain saying he would be available for selection); the snub of Theo Walcott; and the call-ups for Jake Livermore, James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond.
Those decisions will have proven to the players that Southgate is his own man, not one who’s going to allow the tedious status quo to continue with more staid squad selections.
And Southgate’s decisiveness will have also told the fringe players that this international break is an opportunity to stake a case for an unexpected regular spot in the squad. Perform well when given the chance and they will likely get another.
So, with that in mind, the next two games are a big opportunity for a number of players – with three who should be particularly desperate to take this chance to shine.
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The headline name in Gareth Southgate’s first squad as full England manager was Defoe – the 34-year-old who had spent over three years in the international wilderness. At first glance the selection of the Sunderland striker seemed like a sentimental one, rewarding him for his goalscoring exploits in domestic football with some short-term international recognition.
But, this could be more than just a curtain call for Defoe's England career.
A glance at the forward options available to England at present does not make pretty reading. There’s Harry Kane, who is the stand-out option for the No. 9 jersey, but behind him there’s little to encourage Southgate. Jamie Vardy lacks tactical nuance and blows hot and cold, Marcus Rashford is a talent but barely plays as a striker for his club, Daniel Sturridge looks a fraction of the player he used to be, and both Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll are so desperately injury prone that they would be a huge risk for a tournament squad unless they can solve their fitness issues.
And even if those players are all fit, none would really define themselves as a penalty-box finisher. None are the sort of striker you’d definitely want on the end of a chance deep in extra-time of a crucial tournament match. And that’s where Defoe comes in.
Granted he’s not likely to be England’s first-choice striker going forward (that mantle appears to be firmly in Kane's grasp). But every squad needs options, every manager needs match-winning alternatives to turn to on his bench. And Southgate has apparently identified exactly striking alternative he wants in his number. All Defoe has to do now is take this chance.
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The decision to leave Wayne Rooney out of the latest squad puts pressure on the remaining creative players to deliver, most notably Everton’s Barkley, who is the most stylistically similar player to the absent Rooney
Southgate’s reasoning behind leaving Rooney out was clear, as the coach himself explained:
" We have to look at Wayne as a No.10, which is his predominant role. In the last two games we’ve played Dele Alli there and we’ve played Adam Lallana there. Both are playing very well, scoring and assisting for their clubs. Ross Barkley has been playing very well for his club. So there’s competition. I can’t dress it up any other way. There are some very good players and it’s a battle to get in this squad."
Yet while the England manager was outwardly talking about Rooney’s role in the squad with those comments, he was surely also giving a pointed nudge to Barkley too.
Everton’s midfield dynamo has suffered peaks and troughs during his short but promising career to-date, not entirely living up to the hype while not doing badly enough to remove it. But right now Barkley is riding high on one of those peaks, coming into these international fixtures in arguably the best form of his career to-date. But, as Southgate said, competition for his preferred position is fierce, so Barkley has to make any opportunity count if he’s to avoid slipping down the pecking order.
Everton's Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku before the matchReuters
At present it would appear that Alli is the first-choice No. 10, certainly when you take into account his excellent club partnership with Kane. But the Spurs midfielder is tactically malleable and could adjust if necessary to allow room for both him and Barkley in the same side. But that would only be a sacrifice worth making if Barkley makes a strong case for inclusion, which he has yet to do in an England shirt.
With Rooney absent and Jordan Henderson also missing in midfield, these two games are likely to offer as good a chance as any for Barkley to stake his claim.
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Left-back is a slot up for grabs in the England set-up. At club level Tottenham’s Danny Rose isn’t just the stand-out English option in the Premier League, he’s the stand-out player in that position of any nationality. Yet Rose has yet to translate his domestic form to international football, looking defensively vulnerable in an England shirt in a way that seems like a distant memory in a Spurs one. With Rose missing through injury in this squad, Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand has a chance to prove why he should be his country’s first choice.
England's Ryan Bertrand heads to board the planeAFP
Bertrand’s career has been an odd one. Such was the lack of game-time he enjoyed at Chelsea it still feels like he’s a youngster, but at 27 these should be his peak seasons. And he seems to be showing that they are.
The Southampton full-back isn’t quite as attacking as Rose, but he nevertheless offers a relentless desire to get forward without compromising the defensive qualities that saw him utilised in a Champions League final to try and stifle the creative might of Bayern Munich back in 2012.
With Luke Shaw likely to improve as his confidence and fitness returns, competition for the England left-back slot could be far greater in future, but Bertrand has all the tools in his armoury to make the position his own. A good display – particularly in the testing friendly against Germany – would be a major tick next to his name.
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