Gareth Southgate believes England are blessed with their current crop of attacking full-backs or wing-backs, going as far as to argue that the right side is possibly the strongest area of the squad.
The England manager denied favouring attacking qualities over defensive ones when Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka was left out of the squad and Chelsea’s Reece James included despite having to serve a suspension in the Nations League, explaining that on present form it was impossible to leave out James and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
“It’s an area of the pitch where we are blessed,” he says. “Reece and Trent have both played as wing-backs as well as full-backs. They are in outstanding form and we are probably stronger there than in any other position. Aaron is a very good defender, one against one he’s probably as good as I have seen, but I have to look at the balance of the team and currently there are players ahead of him.”
James is likely to get the nod for Thursday’s friendly against the Republic of Ireland, simply because he is eligible, and though there are not many advantages to playing internationals behind closed doors, Southgate believes an empty Wembley will ease the pressure on the three players in his squad – Declan Rice, Jack Grealish and Michael Keane – who could have opted to play for Ireland.
“I don’t think it will be too much of an issue in an empty stadium, but everybody faces the same situation with dual-nationality players,” he says. “It is happening more and more in the modern game, and some players have more than two countries to choose from. When we played Wales last month we knew Tyler Roberts and Ethan Ampadu could have chosen England.
“We try our best to offer encouragement to all the talented young players available to us, but we cannot claim everyone. We have to find a balance that is fair. We don’t want to be handing out caps to very young players just to stop them playing for anyone else.”
A case in point at the moment is the Valencia teenager Yunus Musah, once on Arsenal’s books, but American-born, of Ghanaian parentage and raised in Italy. Now playing in Spain, Musah is eligible to play at international level for the USA, England, Ghana and Italy and is still to make a choice. Southgate has been involved in discussions with his family to state the England case, though is aware the USA have also been tracking him and are just as keen to win him over.
As with Jadon Sancho at Dortmund, Musah found a move away from England led to accelerated first-team opportunities and greater experience at a younger age than might have been the case in the Premier League, a modern development Southgate is relaxed about. “The Bundesliga in particular is a brilliant league for young players to go into,” he says.
“A club like Dortmund has its share of high-level games, but also some that are below the level of the Premier League. It’s a good grounding and it is clear that Jadon, for example, wants to be a top player and is on a good pathway.”
Southgate has been using recent internationals to hand out a few debuts and recognises that the present squad shows a marked split between experienced players and relative newcomers. He might as well do that in games when there is little or nothing at stake, though it will be different next year when the European Championship takes place.
Jamie Vardy can expect a call if he keeps up the sort of form that has taken Leicester to second in the table. “Jamie is playing as well as any forward in the country, there’s no two ways about that,” Southgate says. “We know exactly what he can bring, and he is probably benefiting from having a rest during international breaks rather than joining up with England. It would be another matter if we were going into a championship, but at the moment we are not.”