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When will Gareth Southgate ditch his trusted defenders for more promising youngsters?

England
(Image credit: Getty)

Sometimes managers gravitate towards their own. Pep Guardiola has a famous fondness for midfielders. Thomas Frank has accumulated an army of Danes. Paul Ince only manages teams that feature Tom Ince. So perhaps it was no surprise that Gareth Southgate named an England squad stuffed with players who occupy his old position. 

Withdrawals leave it looking still more unbalanced. Of the nine defenders, two are left-backs, one a right-back and six specialist centre-backs. 

And if that suggests Southgate is likely to use a back three against Switzerland and Ivory Coast, it is also unlikely that he can cram all six into a World Cup squad. Rather, he is widening his options while delaying a decision. 

To some, the most eye-catching selection remains Harry Maguire: faith in a Southgate favourite remains, despite his traumatic season for Manchester United. If fit, it is safe to assume Maguire will go to Qatar. The harder bit may be determining who accompanies him.

Because Southgate’s six can be divided into three pairs: the first choices, in John Stones and Maguire; the Euro 2020 back-ups, in Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady; and the next generation, in Ben White and Marc Guehi.  The newcomers (relatively, in White’s case, as he has two caps and was in the provisional Euro 2020 squad) represent a threat to, and perhaps the opposite of, the more established duo. Several years younger, they have a higher ceiling and greater potential.

Coady and Mings can represent the tried and trusted. Part of their appeal lies in their characters: affable figures who have worked their way up from the lower leagues and non-leagues respectively, they seem the epitome of good tourists, the selfless types with the right personalities to be supportive reserves. Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland nominated Coady as England’s player of Euro 2020, even though he did not get on the pitch. Given where each has come from, he is aware there are worse fates than being a non-playing member of a talented England squad. As Southgate and Martin Keown went to the 2002 World Cup and did not play a minute, he has an insight into what that takes.

Which is not to say that friends and captains of West Midlands clubs are in identical positions. Mings excelled when deputising for Maguire in the first two games of Euro 2020, despite some decidedly shaky displays in warm-up games, but has had a rather mixed season for Aston Villa. Coady has been superb for Wolves but the same reservation remains: nearly all of his time as a defender has been spent in the middle of a back three. Defending in a two, sometimes in one-on-one battles, feels a stiffer ask.

White has long looked a player with more natural ability, as his £50 million fee indicates. He has allied assurance in possession with an improving reputation for reliability. He has benefited from a trio of progressive managers, in Marcelo Bielsa, Graham Potter and Mikel Arteta. He may be playing Champions League football next season and could look at home there. At 21, Guehi has been fast-tracked, but there was always the possibility an Under-17 World Cup winner could be. A hugely auspicious debut year for Crystal Palace suggests he become one of the Premier League’s outstanding centre-backs.

The decision between the solid citizens and the potentially superb is reflected even outside the squad. Eric Dier might have gone to Euro 2020 but for a collapse in form that left him unselectable. Now he seems selectable again and would bring a senior professional’s dependability behind the scenes. Fikayo Tomori probably lost out to White and Guehi in the battle of the emerging, along with Max Kilman, whose performance levels dipped at the wrong time, but it is possible to envisage each will still be in contention for the 2030 World Cup. They are not alone in that.

White and Guehi could be players who go on to win 50 or more international caps in a way that Mings and Coady, who debuted at 26 and 27 respectively, never seemed destined to. If each was a stop-gap, perhaps each has confounded predictions by remaining a constant in the squad. Many of Southgate’s youthful selections have shown an admirable willingness to look beyond the probable end of his tenure and to set England up for years to come. Whether in the summer or the autumn, he faces a choice, between his loyal, likeable back-ups and the talents who could be fixtures in the team in the future.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.