Gareth Southgate has admitted some younger England players felt the weight of the shirt during a high stress Nations League get-together.
The manager was the focal point for criticism after the 1-0 defeat against Italy in Milan last Friday, the travelling fans booing him at full time. The result had followed the 4-0 home defeat against Hungary in June when Southgate was also jeered – the final tie in a sequence of four, which started with the away loss against Hungary and took in draws with Germany and Italy.
The fear was that the negativity would hold the team back and they wobbled in the Wembley game with Germany on Monday, a 3-3 thriller. But Southgate was delighted with the quality and character they showed to take a 3-2 lead having trailed 2-0 – feeling the experience would bolster them for the World Cup in Qatar.
“They have been through a lot and the psychology of it all is fascinating for us,” Southgate said. “Different expectations, different levels of experience in the group. Some young ones that are actually handling it brilliantly and some that are needing help and guidance. They will be thinking: ‘What is this?’
“We have talked about how the shirt feels and they are experiencing for the first time a little bit what some of the older ones have been through in the past. That [comeback against Germany] is what we want. That’s the style of play that we know they are capable of. We have to keep instilling the belief and the confidence in them to be able to do it.”
Southgate pushed the theme of resilience in adversity and he applied it specifically to Harry Maguire, the Manchester United defender, who has lost his place at club level and continues to live under an unforgiving spotlight; he was badly at fault for Germany’s first goal and he lost the ball in the build-up to their second.
Southgate has said that Maguire’s prospects would become “more complicated” if his lack of football at United persisted for the “seven to eight weeks” leading up to the World Cup. The manager added that he had to “focus on our best players – unless that situation becomes untenable”. He has given himself the wriggle room to drop Maguire in Qatar. But his backing for one of his key lieutenants remains strong.
“I know everybody says he’s important to me – he’s important to us,” Southgate said. “It’s us. It’s not me. Why do we pick him? Because he’s one of the players who gives us the best chance of winning. We should all be wanting a Harry Maguire that’s playing regularly and playing with confidence.
“That applies to quite a few players but he’s the one that everything lands on, which must be a tough space for him. But he’s showing tremendous character. He has got the character to get over this because he’s a boy that has been from Sheffield United to Hull City … he’s not one where everything has been smooth.”
Southgate suggested Trent Alexander-Arnold faced a battle for inclusion in the 26-man squad, as he was behind Kieran Trippier in the right-back pecking order – not to mention Reece James. Trippier’s ability to play on the left side is another point in his favour. Southgate also explained why he omitted Alexander-Arnold from the 23-man match-day squad against Germany, having left out the left back, Ben Chilwell, against Italy.
“Firstly I didn’t want any player to sit in the stand for two matches,” Southgate said. “Against Italy we didn’t need the left-back cover [on the bench]; against Germany, we did because of the way we went with the team, so we needed Chilly on the bench. And we had Kieran who, at the moment … I feel his all-round game is ahead [of Alexander-Arnold].
“I’ve had long conversations with all of them [who have been left out]. I’ve been clear with them about where they stand, what they need to improve upon, what they’re doing well. They’re clear on where they sit.”
Southgate will not see his players again until November 14th when they report for the World Cup. They travel to Qatar the next day and their opening fixture comes against Iran on November 21st. “This tournament is unique,” Southgate said. “We don’t get the four weeks we had ahead of Russia at the last World Cup. We have to adapt better than anybody else.”