It would have been entirely out of character for Gareth Southgate, but when Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey’s easily-misconstrued social media post set tongues wagging in the minutes before the England squad was announced, it had football fans on the edge of their seat.
Alas, there was no such surprise inclusion. No Theo Walcott moment. No Marcus Rashford moment, though the Manchester United forward was included this time with far more chance of featuring than at Euro 2016.
The announcement of the World Cup squad is a key milestone in every tournament. It draws a bold line around the group of players who will be travelling, the only people now who can contribute to the winning of world football’s biggest competition and a group whose focus must now collectively turn to that goal.
Southgate’s first tournament squad, devoid of surprises, looks to give youth a chance while still acknowledging the need for experience. It has prioritised the versatility of Fabian Delph, Eric Dier, Danny Welbeck and Kyle Walker over more specialised players – or one-dimensional, depending on your view – such as Chris Smalling and Ryan Bertrand.
That reinforces what we know about this young England manager, that he is willing to adapt his shape and style to counteract the strengths of an opponent. There should be no shame in that. If England were a dominant outfit like Spain or Germany then they could afford to be dogmatic over their beliefs and rotate talent into the team. Instead, Southgate knows he has to tweak and fiddle. It might be his biggest strength.
But this is a moment not to get carried away with the 23 and instead to focus on the 12, or maybe the 13.
In the five World Cups since the format changed to 32 teams, the average number of players per squad who played more than 120 minutes of football is – in chronological order from 1998 to 2014: 12.5, 12.3, 12.9, 12.3 and 12.6.
So as nice as it is for the 23 players named in the squad, the reality remains that 10 of them are likely to see scant or no game time.
Questions remain over who might start in a couple of positions and that will be something that has to shake out; the goalkeeping berth, right-back/wing-back and the third midfield position. But broadly speaking we can already denote who England’s key contributors are likely to be at World Cup 2018.
Jordan Pickford, the current favourite to start in goal, will be joined by Walker, Danny Rose, John Stones, Gary Cahill (or Phil Jones), Kieran Trippier, Dier, Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
It means Rashford, Jamie Vardy, Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young will be lucky to see significant playing time in attack. Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose inclusion makes it four tournaments in a row that England have taken a teenager, will struggle to break into the defence along with Phil Jones and Harry Maguire.
The mystery man is Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a prodigiously talented and physically imposing ball-carrier who could just as easily be reduced to a couple of five-minute cameos as start the opening game. In many ways it is Loftus-Cheek who is the biggest joker in Southgate’s pack because his box-to-box, all-round skill set would allow the England manager to play in the system he clearly wants. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana were both knocked out by injury and so can’t fulfil that role, but should Loftus-Cheek impress pre-tournament his name could swiftly become one of the 13 that matters.
An unlucky number for some, perhaps, but previous tournaments suggest it’s a far better indicator of what is important in a World Cup squad than obsessing with those on the fringes.
Expected starting XI: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Cahill; Trippier, Dier, Henderson, Rose; Alli; Kane, Sterling.
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Jack Butland (Stoke), Nick Pope (Burnley)
Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Kyle Walker (Manchester City) Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose (both Tottenham), Harry Maguire (Leicester), Phil Jones (Man Utd), John Stones (Man City), Gary Cahill (Chelsea)
Midfielders: Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Dele Alli (both Tottenham), Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young (both Man Utd), Fabian Delph (Man City), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea),
Forwards: Raheem Sterling (Man City), Jamie Vardy (Leicester), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Man Utd), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal).
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