Gareth Southgate expects England will only play with one holding midfield player in their opening World Cup games against Tunisia and Panama, meaning one of either Eric Dier or Jordan Henderson could miss out on a starting place.
Southgate deployed the pair alongside each other towards the end of the qualifying campaign but doubts have been raised as to whether two conservative midfielders will be necessary in Russia, especially for games in which England are favourites.
The England manager stressed that the versatility of both Dier and Henderson mean neither have just one route into his side and he believes that whatever his decision, both will be “important figures” at the tournament.
Southgate did, however, admit that he is likely to play just one ‘pivot’ initially in an attempt to field more attack-minded players against Group G’s lower seeds.
“We have to look at that,” he said at his press conference on Wednesday to preview England’s final warm-up game against Costa Rica.
“I think we will only want to play with one pivot. Henderson can play as a No8, so that gives you an option, Dier can play as a centre-back. So they both have another way into the team.”
Henderson has rarely been deployed as a ‘No8’ – a roaming box-to-box midfielder – under Southgate, nor has Dier played at centre-back, but Southgate is not against the idea of trying either.
“No [they haven’t played in those positions under me], because most of Henderson’s games we played with a team and played them together but that’s not an unrealistic possibility for Henderson to play as a No8.
“He played a lot more advanced for most of his career. I am not sure Liverpool had many options as a pivot so he ended up doing that role.”
Southgate added: “It is a key decision, but that’s management isn’t it? You either select players, or you choose your system and pick the best people to fit into it. They’re the tough calls.
“I’d be amazed if the two of them aren’t important figures during the tournament for us, but there is clearly the possibility they might not both play in every match.”
Henderson and Dier are two of five players who form part of a ‘leadership group’ within Southgate’s squad. Both captained England during the recent March internationals and they join Fabian Delph and Ashley Young alongside full-time skipper Harry Kane in the quintet.
Southgate revealed the identity of this group for the first time on Wednesday, but after rotating the armband during qualifying, he believes a culture of leadership has spread throughout the squad and will aid England’s chances in Russia.
“There are some other big characters in there,” he said. “Some you hear their voices louder than others. There is a natural [hierarchy]. When you name Harry captain, he’s already viewed in one way by the players, but he’s viewed slightly differently. But they all get on. They interact.”
Boredom has been a common complaint among the players during England’s World Cup campaigns past, with the 2010 camp particularly tedious for some in the group.
Southgate dismissed the ‘boredom’ question as “a nonsense” while in front of the television cameras – claiming “only boring people get bored” – but later rowed back on that “flippant” remark and outlined why he is confident players will not be left twiddling their thumbs this time around.
“It’s about the environment you have, the culture you create, the interaction and togetherness of the players. I didn’t work with Fabio [Capello, England’s manager at the 2010 World Cup] so I don’t know how that was, but I know Italian players are away for preseason for weeks. That’s what they’re used to.
“Our guys are wired differently. We’ve broken up the precamps. If we’d been together for too long and there weren’t enough things to stimulate the players, boredom could have been an issue. But there are moments as an athlete where your world is train, recover, game. It’s not just all about entertainment.
“We’ve got enough good characters who interact well and provide moments which bring humour to all of us. We do take it seriously, the environment we create. But the togetherness of the group is fundamental to that. The lads are going to enjoy being together.”
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