Italy and the Netherlands await England in the March internationals and somehow neither game captures the imagination at all.
Once upon a time these friendlies would pit two World Cup teams together in a preview of the big competition in the summer but, well, neither Italy or the Netherlands made it. Fittingly, England are preparing for the summer event by playing sides already eliminated from the competition.
The familiar cries of “Average!” greeted the squad announcement but these cries were drowned out by a startling amount of anger over the omission of Brighton’s Glenn Murray. One Tweeter was apoplectic that Danny Welbeck was called-up again while Murray and Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson were left out.
This is what we’ve been reduced to. A World Cup is three months away and we’re arguing over whether a 34-year-old striker with 13 goals should be called up instead of Welbeck, whose international record far surpasses his club one.
I get it. We, as fans, want to see the hard-working, in form players recognised for their good work with an England call-up. Murray is the new Rickie Lambert or Grant Holt; a striker who had toiled away in the lower divisions for years and is now, during the sunset of his career, enjoying a productive couple of months in the Premier League. The same sentiment can be applied to Burnley’s Ashley Barnes as well.
Unfortunately, international squads cannot be built on sentiment. England are not going to get very far with Murray, Barnes or Wilson in their squad. When we’re losing to Belgium, or France, or Spain, or even Panama or Tunisia, and Gareth Southgate needs to turn to the bench, do we really want these guys coming on?
Southgate is fortunate that he has good forwards to select from. Even without Harry Kane, he has an in-form Jamie Vardy to call on, and beyond him there’s Marcus Rashford and, for all his troubles at club level, Welbeck. Up front our problems are minimal. In midfield… oh boy, cover your eyes in horror.
The last time Jake Livermore started in a winning team was in August. His continued selection must be down to a lack of holding midfield options. Perhaps there’s an eye on the fitness of Eric Dier and an intention to take care of him during this break. Even still, Livermore has neither the form or quality to justify selection, and that he has been again seems an unnecessary nod to continuity.
At the very least, there’s the returning Jack Wilshere, who will bring some actual ability to the centre of the pitch – provided he plays, of course. Southgate commented earlier this season that he won’t play Dele Alli and Wilshere in the same team. I fully expect the unholy trinity of Dier, Henderson and Alli to continue and us crying for Wilshere to come on when we can’t pass the ball forwards.
Southgate can certainly field a technical team if he wants to. I’d love to see Wilshere, Lallana, Lingard and Sterling all start together but alas, I suspect the first three will be benched while the latter will struggle to make a meaningful impact after he’s starved of the ball by his own midfielders.
These friendlies will give us an idea if Southgate knows his best side and what shape they’ll play. My bet is that we’ll see two experimental sides, likely playing two different shapes, and get no meaningful answers. Then we’ll head into the summer friendlies still asking the same questions and stumble into the World Cup, as always.