Some Premier League managers may be forgiven for thinking that England’s internationals against the relative footballing minnows of Malta and North Macedonia are dead rubbers. For the England manager, they are the polar opposite.
Gareth Southgate has only one more training camp and set of fixtures in March before he names his squad for next summer’s Euros. As a result, he is now finalising plans, tactical possibilities, and personnel for the finals in Germany – so these games are vital in his eyes.
Also, England need a maximum six points to be guaranteed a place in Pot One amongst the highest seeds, when the draw is made in Hamburg in a fortnight’s time.
So Southgate’s plan was to pick all his best, most experienced players, and start them for both matches. He did as much in his original squad selection – no first time call ups, no surprises.
But those plans – like his squad – have been decimated by injuries.
In all, 10 players who would have been classed as among his “first choice” options are unavailable. That’s almost half his squad.
In fact, he is unable to name a full matchday squad, having only 22 players left in camp – one shy of the 23 allowed by UEFA. Nevertheless, he won’t call up any replacements at this late stage of the international break, feeling it would be too challenging for them to get up to speed with the rest.
England’s November squad
Goalkeepers: Sam Johnstone (Crystal Palace), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal).
Defenders: Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa), Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Fikayi Tomori (AC Milan), Kieran Trippier (Newcastle), Kyle Walker (Manchester City).
Midfielders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Rico Lewis (Manchester City), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Jordan Henderson (Al-Ettifaq), Kalvin Phillips (Manchester City), Declan Rice (Arsenal), Cole Palmer (Chelsea).
Forwards: Jarrod Bowen (West Ham), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Bayern Munich), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa).
Both Jude Bellingham and Levi Colwill were likely starters against Malta on Friday night – both have withdrawn with shoulder injuries.
James Maddison, Callum Wilson and Lewis Dunk have similarly pulled out; John Stones, Reece James, Luke Shaw and Eddie Nketiah were injured even before Southgate named his original squad last week.
Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips both asked for permission to join up with the squad late, as they sorted some personal matters back home: Rashford is now here, has trained, but Phillips remains absent and won’t play any part at Wembley.
So, what is Southgate’s plan B, and how useful will these matches now prove?
Whatever the England boss was hoping to achieve, with his first picks in camp, has now been consigned to dreamland. But I still expect him to select the strongest possible starting XI to face the team ranked 171 in the FIFA world rankings.
Malta are pointless so far, bottom of Group C, having conceded 17 goals in their seven matches, and scored just twice.
Harry Kane will be licking his lips at the prospect of extending his record as England’s all-time leading goalscorer, and he will almost certainly get that chance from the start. The 24 goals in 19 games he has scored for his new employers in Munich prove he is in red-hot form.
Harry Maguire is set to be at the heart of central defence, most likely alongside Marc Guehi who is fast becoming the first choice understudy, should either Maguire or (as is the case now) John Stones be unavailable. Southgate is likely to want to give that partnership more time to build up an understanding.
Declan Rice will anchor the England midfield, and with Trent Alexander-Arnold appearing alongside the manager at the pre-match news conference, that’s a clear indicator he will get the nod to start alongside the Arsenal man on Friday night – with more freedom to roam, and exploit his brilliant array of passing.
Of the three new-boys – Ezri Konsa, Rico Lewis and Cole Palmer – I’d expect the Chelsea forward to have the best chance of making his senior international debut.
While Southgate is likely to start with his strongest XI, if and when the game and scoreline are safe, he will have some freedom to ring the changes, and try some different options.
Palmer’s brilliant form and burgeoning confidence means he could be first off the ranks among the attacking substitutes. Ten goal involvements (goals and assists) in his 14 Chelsea matches have given him great justification for getting that chance.
There is little or nothing that Southgate does not know about Saka, Foden, Grealish, Rashford, and even Jarrod Bowen. But how Palmer might be able to link up with Kane, which of his versatile roles is best suited to international football, and how he copes in that new environment – all of those questions remain unanswered.
Bellingham’s absence means there is a vacancy in England’s most advanced central midfield role – Palmer may well get to prove himself in that position at some stage over the next two matches.
Lewis may only be 18, and played only 19 Premier League games in his fledgling career, but again – his versatility may well see him make his debut over the next few days – either at right back, or more likely in a defensive midfield position.
Konsa may have to wait a little longer for his England senior debut, with Fikayo Tomori ahead of him in the category of “deserves a chance.” The AC Milan defender got an hour of football in England’s friendly against Australia last month, but that is his only international appearance since coming on as a substitute against Andorra 13 months ago.
So, overall, those supporters clamouring for change, and for the most “in-form” domestic players to be given a go, may again be left frustrated. But Southgate will be unapologetic.
He has spoken publicly, and privately in camp, of the build up to next summer’s Euros having already started. The players all say they have designs on winning the trophy, and so the “meaningless” games against Malta and North Macedonia are actually viewed as a key part of the preparation to make England realistic contenders.
Analysis: Is Southgate ditching Mr Reliable for good?
Sky Sports News senior reporter Rob Dorsett:
“Raheem Sterling has been Gareth Southgate’s go-to man. Mr Reliable. One of the first names on the team sheet, never mind the squad list.
“That certainly was the case up until the Qatar World Cup. Since then, Sterling has been left in the wilderness. He’s not featured in any of the four subsequent England squads.
“Southgate has shown his ruthless side in the past, expediting the international retirements of Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart. But it would be surprising if he has now decided to do the same with Sterling – a player who has been crucial to the manager’s mission since day one.
“Since Southgate became England boss in 2016 until last December, only Harry Kane has been used more often than Sterling. The Chelsea winger won 55 caps in those six years – eight fewer than Kane, but two more than each of Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker and John Stones.
“So, why the sudden change of heart? And is there a route back into the England fold for Sterling before next summer’s Euros in Germany?
“Having been left out of the last four, this is one of only two England camps before Southgate has to name his 23-man squad for the Euros. With Sterling left out again, you have to think his chances of making the Euros are slim.
“It was the Chelsea winger who opted out of the squad in June, because he did not feel fully fit. He’s been overlooked by England ever since.”