Everyone is presumably looking forward to more talk of football “coming home” when the World Cup kicks off in November, with England among the favourites to win the tournament for the first time since 1966.
However, the Three Lions have had a stinker of a Nations League campaign in 2022, having failed to win any of their four games in June.
A 1-0 defeat in Hungary was followed by a draw in Germany thanks to a late Harry Kane penalty, before a dull 0-0 at Molineux against Italy and an abysmal performance in their 4-0 defeat to Hungary at the same venue.
Three months on from that chastening loss in Wolverhampton, manager Gareth Southgate picked his squad for the final two Nations League games against Italy and Germany, and while there was a new face in Brentford striker Ivan Toney, it was otherwise more of the same, with some notable absentees too.
In February, Southgate said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph: “I’m very conscious I’ve got to get the balance right because ultimately my responsibility is to produce a winning England team.
“I never pick on reputation; form has to come into it. You have to look at the opposition and the type of game you’re expecting and select the players best suited to that.”
It therefore raised some eyebrows when some players who have subjectively been somewhat out of form in the opening weeks of the season, and who were at the scene of the crime in previous disappointing England results, kept their places ahead of others who have stepped up their game domestically in recent weeks.
Stats Perform has taken a look at some who were perhaps lucky to get another call, and others unfortunate to miss out in the last Three Lions squad before the World Cup.
— England Football (@EnglandFootball) September 21, 2022
Who made it?
Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw
It makes sense to pair the two Manchester United defenders, as the reasons why they can consider themselves lucky to keep their international places are essentially the same.
Maguire and Shaw received their fair share of blame for United’s poor showings in recent years, and it came to a head in the 4-0 defeat at Brentford in the second game of this season’s Premier League campaign, having already lost at home to Brighton and Hove Albion.
New boss Erik ten Hag dropped both after that, and United have won four from four in the league since.
Left-back Shaw has been reduced to occasional substitute appearances after losing his starting spot to young Dutchman Tyrell Malacia, while Maguire has been ousted by France centre-back Raphael Varane.
The only game in the past five Maguire has started was at home to Real Sociedad in the Europa League, which United lost 1-0.
That is not to say the duo are solely responsible for the insipid showings from their team, but it also doesn’t feel like purely coincidence Ten Hag’s men’s results immediately improved without them.
This might be a little harsh as Bowen was being championed by everyone to be included on form last season, which he was, featuring in all four Nations League games in June.
However, having scored 18 goals in 51 games in all competitions last season for West Ham, Bowen has managed just two in 10 this season, both of which have come in the Europa Conference League.
The Hammers have struggled for form this season, sitting in 18th place after seven games, so it would be unfair to blame Bowen, but he also failed to make much of an impact in any of his England appearances.
The door certainly should not be shut on an undoubtedly talented player, but it seems odd to see him back with the national team after a noticeable drop in form at a time when others in his position are excelling.
Arguably the player who causes most debate in England, Grealish will always feel too talented to leave out.
Comparisons to Paul Gascoigne seem lazy, but it’s hard not to resort to them when you see him at his best, able to turn a game on his own if he finds that spark almost all other players lack.
Grealish had a poor first season at Manchester City, though, recording just 10 goal involvements (six goals, four assists) in 39 games.
He scored and played well in the 3-0 win at Wolves last weekend, but it was his first goal involvement in six appearances this season, and while he is clearly capable of being a key part of Southgate’s team on his day, his form arguably does not justify inclusion at the moment.
Who missed out?
The Arsenal defender is a difficult one to champion, frankly, because it’s not clear what position you would be arguing for.
White did not really blow anyone away at centre-back in his first season with the Gunners but has thrived at right-back in Mikel Arteta’s system so far this campaign.
If Southgate is to go back to his favoured three-at-the-back formation, White on the right of that would make sense, albeit Kyle Walker probably has the shirt right now.
White is improving all the time, though, and has played a big part in Arsenal winning six of their first seven Premier League games, and his versatility would be a bonus.
Possibly the man most justified in feeling miffed at missing out as, unlike the other three in this list, Maddison is rarely ever seen in an England squad, despite his output at club level.
Although he has been named in squads before, Maddison has just one cap, which came when he played 35 minutes against Montenegro in November 2019.
Like Grealish, Maddison can be seen as enigmatic, but his recent form for Leicester City speaks for itself.
He has been directly involved in 24 Premier League goals since the start of last season (15 goals, nine assists). The only English player with more in this time is Harry Kane (33) having made three more appearances than Maddison (44 to 41).
24 – James Maddison has been directly involved in 24 Premier League goals since the start of 2021-22 (15 goals, 9 assists), the only English player with more in this time is Harry Kane (32). Gareth? pic.twitter.com/rFKnTYsI2F
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 17, 2022
Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford
As their United team-mates were paired up, it makes sense to do the same here, and because their turn around in form has synced up as the Red Devils have won five of their past six games.
Sancho struggled to make an impact in his first season back in England, with just eight goal involvements (five goals, three assists) in 38 games.
However, this season he already has three goals in eight matches, showing glimpses of his Borussia Dortmund form.
Rashford ended a run of 997 minutes without a goal in all competitions for Manchester United when he scored against Liverpool in August, and netted another two against Arsenal as his scoring touch returned at Old Trafford.
The duo were a part of England’s squad that reached the final of Euro 2020, but both also played a part in the penalty shoot-out loss to Italy.
That does not mean they cannot be of use in Qatar, and it would seem foolish of Southgate to ignore players already proven at international level who seem to be peaking at just the right time for a mid-season tournament.
Ultimately, as Southgate said, it is his job to build a team he thinks can win games. It is hard to argue with a record that has seen England reach the final four of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020.
He also said “form has to come into it” rather than it being the be all and end all.
Rather than “reputation”, perhaps Southgate is just picking players he knows, therefore allowing him full awareness of what he is going to get if he selects them. Heading into a World Cup is not really the time to be introducing unknown quantities.
The likes of White and Maddison will be well within their rights to blame the former Middlesbrough boss for them continuing to be relatively unknown to him, though.
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