On the off chance that the meaning of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results”, it would come as no great surprise to discover quite a few senior figures in the Football Association headquarters wandering Blackadder style round their Wembley offices with their underpants on their head and a pencil up each nostril shouting “wibble”. England have an affection for crow-excepting star players who are not really coordinate fit into their squads for real competitions and it is an approach that once in a while yields profits.
David Beckham famously went to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, where he performed reasonably but was clearly not firing on all cylinders after recovering from a broken metatarsal. Just back from a similar injury, Wayne Rooney could scarcely have been less effective at Germany 2006, a tournament that ended in ignominy for the striker when he was sent off in the 62nd minute of England’s quarter-final defeat on penalties at the hands of Portugal.
More recently Roy Hodgson was criticised for his decision to select Jack Wilshere for France 2016, despite the Arsenal midfielder having played only 141 minutes for his club in the previous season. As the rest of the continent convulsed with paroxysms of mirth, Wilshere ended that particular tournament on his haunches with the fingers of both hands in his mouth, gazing into the middle distance and pondering the embarrassment of it all.
The mentality of managers who take such punts on star players is understandable, if a little misguided. While most squads are big enough to carry a passenger or two among their ranks, only the very best teams can afford such luxuries while playing in the knockout stages of major tournaments. And as luck would have it, the very best teams tend to have enough strength in depth not to need to take such risks. The surprise winners, Portugal, were able to beat the hosts, France, at Euro 2016 despite losing Cristiano Ronaldo to injury after 25 minutes of the final. Nobody, it seems, need be indispensable.
With fewer than 100 days to go until England kick off their World Cup campaign against Tunisia in Volgograd Gareth Southgate would not be human if he was unconcerned by the fact so many of the regulars in the 14 teams he has so far picked are playing poorly, infrequently or not at all. The England manager has said he would find it difficult to select players who are not getting regular run-outs for their club sides and yet this is precisely the dilemma he would be facing if he had to pick his 23 for Russia tomorrow.
Beginning between the sticks Joe Hart, who has started 12 of those 14 games over which Southgate has presided, is second fiddle to Adrian at West Ham. The 30-year-old goalkeeper was reduced to EFL and FA Cup duty after losing his place at the end of November and currently cuts a forlorn figure on the bench of a club in turmoil. In front of Hart, Gary Cahill has started all seven England matches for which he has been available under Southgate but the manager is understood to be gravely concerned by the run of poor form that has led to the Chelsea defender losing his place at club level after becoming the target of sustained abuse from some of the club’s more vocal fans.
John Stones is another England regular who is no longer assured of a Premier League starting place. The 23-year-old has been relegated to the bench following the latest return from injury of Vincent Kompany, who has looked imperious alongside Nicolas Otamendi. Danny Rose, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson, Marcus Rashford, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jesse Lingard are other Southgate staples who have, to varying degrees and for different reasons, found regular starting berths difficult to come by.
Southgate cannot, should not and obviously will not countenance leaving out so many England regulars but there are some notable alternatives who could be integrated into his squad during the four friendlies that England will play before travelling to Russia. Ryan Sessegnon, despite his tender age of 17, has been outstanding for Fulham in the Championship this season and has been a regular across the past two seasons.
Jamaal Lascelles, with his undeniable leadership qualities, regularly excels in the heart of Newcastle’s defence while James Tarkowski has been similarly impressive for Burnley. His team-mate Ashley Barnes has represented Austria at under-21 level and expressed a desire to play for the national side but would scarcely look out of place in the current England set-up and is surely worth pursuing. Already a World Cup winner at Under-17 level, Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook has had a taste of senior international experience and is obviously in Southgate’s plans while calls for Glenn Murray to get international recognition no longer sound as preposterous as they might once have done.
Southgate would undoubtedly be damned for embarking on such a high risk strategy by picking so many uncapped players for England’s World Cup squad but history and all available current evidence suggest he may well be damned if he doesn’t. Even though the World Cup is no longer necessarily a step up in class from elite club football, such a bold approach would constitute a gamble. It is one that could pay off and might be well worth taking.