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Gareth Southgate takes considered yet significant risk with James Maddison selection

The inclusion of the Leicester playmaker was the headline from the England manager’s World Cup squad

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Thursday 10 November 2022 17:59 GMT
World Cup: Gareth Southgate praises James Maddison for making England squad

Strangely, the headline from this World Cup squad announcement was always likely to be the inclusion or non-inclusion of a player with a grand total of one international cap. James Maddison has become the type of English cause celebre that always seems to emerge on the eve of a major tournament, his unpredictable, mercurial abilities providing a skeleton key to unlock defences in Qatar. Given Gareth Southgate’s supposed safety-first nature, many expected that he would be overlooked. Instead, he will go to the World Cup.

Southgate’s inclusion of Maddison is the biggest surprise in his 26-man selection and appears to belie a reputation for standing by trusted, familiar faces. The Leicester City playmaker was the only fully fit player included in this squad to receive a call from Southgate on the morning of the announcement. The England manager wanted to reassure him that, despite speculation that he would miss out, he was in. “We’d decided a couple of weeks ago but weren’t going to tell him then,” Southgate revealed.

It would be unfair to suggest that this represents a sudden change of heart on Southgate’s part. “He’s a good player. We’ve always said he’s a good player,” he insisted, adding that fitness troubles and tactical set-ups have prevented Maddison being called up in the past, but there is no doubt that the biggest difference now is that his performances are too good to ignore. “He’s earned the right,” said the England manager. “I think he's playing as well as any of the attacking players in this country.”

Nevertheless, it is a surprise. The obvious comparison is with Jack Grealish, whose place in this squad was never in doubt, but who is another maverick talent that had to show patience before getting a chance at international level. Grealish’s emergence as an England player was gradual and yet still, Southgate’s reluctance to start him became a point of fierce criticism at the European Championships, even on the way to their first tournament final in 56 years.

Maddison’s only England cap came against Montenegro in 2019 (Getty)

There will be a similar clamour for Maddison to appear off the substitutes’ bench to change a game or even take a place in the starting line-up if results or performances in Qatar leave something to be desired. That is the risk that the allegedly risk-averse Southgate has taken in selecting a player who he has only looked at once in an England shirt previously and who, until now, he had not called up for the best part of three years. It is not an insignificant one.

But then perhaps Southgate understands that the unique nature of this World Cup brings different demands. “Form could be more important,” he admitted when discussing one of his other close calls. Callum Wilson will provide cover for Harry Kane as the squad’s second recognised centre-forward, earning a reward for impressing at Newcastle United. Extraordinarily, the 30-year-old’s last England appearance was even longer ago than Maddison’s.

While Wilson earns a recall off the back of six goals in 10 appearances, Tammy Abraham loses out after a barren spell of scoring in Serie A. “Tammy’s had a poor run scoring form at the wrong time,” Southgate said. The England manager suggested that he has selected players who are ready to perform, just 10 days ahead of their Group B opener against Iran. “It’s not a case where we're three or four weeks away from the finals and the start of the first match.”

That tight turnaround put the involvement of both Kalvin Phillips and Kyle Walker at risk but Southgate has selected both, believing they have sufficiently recovered from their respective shoulder and groin surgeries and will be able to play a part. The expanded squad size has helped in that regard. “We've had to cover a couple of players that aren't yet fully fit, so having 26 available meant we were probably able to take a couple of risks that you might not have been able to with 23.”

Reece James was considered a gamble too far. His recovery from a knee injury had to go “perfectly”, Southgate said, in order for him to be available for the quarter-finals. James’s unavailability has at least avoided any potential storm over Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion. The Liverpool right-back divides opinion, as does Southgate’s use of him, but a call-up was always likely after James was ruled out. Marcus Rashford’s return was also expected.

Tammy Abraham was overlooked as Callum Wilson was selected (Getty)

Outside of Maddison, only Conor Gallagher really qualifies as a surprise. The 22-year-old has only intermittently featured for Chelsea this season – making just six league starts – and his inclusion reflects a lack of midfield depth beyond those in the squad. The other area of concern is left-back, where Luke Shaw is the only recognised option. "We're lighter in depth in some positions than others,” Southgate conceded, “but we think we've got everything covered.”

And despite the more eye-catching, headline-grabbing selections, by and large, he has still achieved that by trusting players he knows. Only five of the 26 call-ups to this squad were not included at any point during the Euros. Nick Pope would have been one of the three goalkeepers then but missed out through injury. Eric Dier was out of favour but a veteran of the previous World Cup campaign in Russia. The other three new faces are Maddison, Wilson and Gallagher.

Even when allowing for the shorter gap between major tournaments, this is largely the same personnel that the England manager has depended on over the last two years. It is a continuation of the Southgate project – a project that has delivered the two best tournament finishes in 26 years but now faces a defining month. The likelihood is that it will be Southgate’s old faithfuls – and not the selections of Maddison, Wilson and Gallagher – that decide whether or not England’s World Cup is a successful one.

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