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Gareth Southgate wants Three Lions to stay grounded

Monday 21st May 2018

Life is filled with choices.

Back in the day, I was in junior high. My science teacher gave the class an assignment to be handed in at semester’s end. Research and write a 12-page paper on any science topic of our choosing. Jaws was selling out theatres at the time to give you an idea how old I am. Everyone wanted to do their paper on sharks. Life offered me the choice to write something original or the best paper on sharks in the entire class. Being more competitive than trailblazing, I chose to go for the class title in shark papers. How did it turn out? Let’s just say I was destined to become a Manchester United fan.

Gareth Southgate faced a similar choice when choosing his World Cup squad. The fashionable formation these days is a back three. Building out from the back is the preferred strategy. The England manager had the option to go his own way or attempt to put together a 3-something-something that would boss all the others. He went for the something-something.

Based on that philosophy, Southgate made the following selections in goal and defence for the Three Lions World Cup squad.

Goalkeepers Jack Butland [Stoke], Jordan Pickford [Everton], Nick Pope [Burnley]
Right Backs Kyle Walker [Manchester City], Trent Alexander-Arnold [Liverpool], Kieran Trippier [Tottenham]
Centre Halves Gary Cahill [Chelsea], John Stones [Manchester City], Harry Maguire [Leicester], Phil Jones [Manchester United]
Left Backs Danny Rose [Tottenham], Fabian Delph [Manchester City], Ashley Young [Manchester United]


At least two notable names are missing.

If you read in the buildup to the tournament that Joe Hart has been arrested after breaking into the Etihad Campus and running amuck with a machete, all the while screaming for Pep Guardiola, who would be on holiday, to show himself, you shouldn’t be shocked. As the City manager would surely say when asked to comment, it’s just another situation the netminder didn’t handle well.

Hart can blame Guardiola all he likes for ruining his career, but he should be looking in the mirror. Football is Darwinian. Conditions change. Players must adapt or perish. It’s not as though Claudio Bravo did any better.

Chris Smalling is a more interesting case. He couldn’t have dribbled down the aisle during Harry and Meghan’s nuptials without losing the ball before the third row. He’d never see Camilla coming. It’s understandable then why he was left out of the squad. Why Phil Jones was included is a bit like the argument that America elected the lesser of two evils between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton but, in all seriousness, Southgate gave up more than most people think when he rejected Smalling.

Harry Maguire and Jones provide the height and physicality Smalling would have offered. Whether one or the other starts in the third group game, as a counter to Romelu Lukaku, remains to be seen. Neither should be needed against Tunisia or Panama. Smalling’s positional sense is better than Jones’, if you ask me, although his United partner is the [slightly] better dribbler. No, it’s at the other end where Louis van Gaal’s best friend Mike will be missed.

Smalling had four goals in the Premier League this term.

At least two, against Crystal Palace and Manchester City, were critical to United coming back to steal three points. His header on 55 minutes turned the match around with the Red Devils down 2-0 at Selhurst Park. His 69th-minute winner at the Etihad was the perfect riposte to the opener he had ceded when losing Vincent Kompany in the first half.

Amazingly, no one raked the Belgian over the coals for losing his man as the commentators and studio pundits did Smalling. That’s beside the point, however. The important bit is that Smalling can be a difference maker. In a short, compacted tournament like the World Cup, a difference maker can, well, make the difference.

I can hear what you’re thinking, by the way. It’s not a defender’s job to score goals. True, but isn’t it funny how we can have conflicting ideas about the game without caring or perhaps being aware? As a United player, Smalling has had a front-row seat to the debate over Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial. The Frenchman’s superior goal rate has by and large been ignored because he isn’t seen to track back or be demonstrative. The Chilean is emotionally committed and plays defence when not in possession. He is the more valuable, the argument goes, because he isn’t one-dimensional. Why doesn’t the same theory apply to a defender who poses a threat in the attacking third?

In the end, it’s not important. If we’re honest, England isn’t going to win the World Cup with or without Chris Smalling. I’m just the type of person who likes to have options because you never know. I mean, Kieran Trippier is in the squad. His strength is whipping in crosses. Gareth Southgate could have completed the thought by selecting someone to be in the box [besides Harry Kane] who can get his head on one when England desperately needs a goal.

Manchester United News
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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