Gareth Southgate has claimed no one in his squad can yet consider himself a “big player” but believes England are hungry to prove their quality before next summer’s World Cup as they seek to repair the relationship with a disillusioned fanbase.
England go into Sunday’s final Group F game against Lithuania with qualification for the tournament in Russia already secured and the management intent upon experimenting. While a core of the team who defeated Slovenia on Thursday will be retained, Southgate will employ three at the back, recall Dele Alli after suspension and the Stoke City goalkeeper, Jack Butland, will start a competitive international for the first time in a little under two years.
Southgate has acknowledged the disconnect between his team and supporters, whose patience has been tested by an uninspiring qualification campaign and stodgy recent performances. Yet, in defending his players, he sought to put expectations into perspective.
When it was put to him that the squad who have travelled to Lithuania includes Champions League and Premier League winners, as well as players who have cost clubs in excess of £40m, he replied: “Well, are they big players until they win? We’re talking about ‘big players’ because of transfer fees or because they are playing in the Champions League.
“But when we are in semi-finals, finals and winning trophies then I think we’re big players. Until that point, for me, we have it all to prove. I am the same as a coach, so I don’t disassociate myself from that. We can’t consider ourselves to be big players. Big players are Piqué, Ramos, Busquets, Kroos, Khedira, Neuer – I could go on. That’s what big players are.
“We create a bubble in our country around the [Premier] League because of the money, because of the profile of it. [But] we have it to prove. No problem. These guys are hungry to prove it.”
Butland – who has made one appearance for his country since fracturing an ankle in the friendly win in Germany in March 2016 – and Everton’s Michael Keane should have that chance here, albeit against a team who failed to beat Malta, as Southgate looks to offer fringe players an opportunity. Harry Winks could make his England debut in midfield.
“We want to come out of this match learning things,” he said. “We don’t want to waste the fixture, so we’re going to try things. Ideally, you keep some players who will give those coming in the chance to be at their best. There’s got to be some structure. But we want this team to evolve.
“Three at the back gives us more stability in transition. We’ve played our best possession football when we’ve played that way in the games up to now. In the qualification games we wanted an extra attacking player on the field, but I’m not certain we’ve created more chances by doing that. So this is an opportunity to try something else.
“I want us to play well and win. Qualification, OK fine. I was as disappointed with the performance on Thursday as anybody, and I’m looking to improve things. As the coach, it’s maybe better we had a night like the other night because it cements some thinking in certain situations and makes it clearer what we need to do.
“We’ve got to keep the ball better, pass it better, be more secure in transition and not so open. There are things we have to improve. None of us is under any illusion on that. But I go back to the fact we don’t have too many players with 50, 60, 70 caps. They’re learning about international football. The more support they can get the better.”
Alli, who was banned by Fifa for one game after his one-fingered gesture in the recent game against Slovakia, will have a chance to combine with his club-mate and international captain, Harry Kane, with Southgate unconvinced the Spurs midfielder is a natural No10.
“Dele is an interesting player,” the manager said. “If you analyse his game closely he’s a scorer of goals and he’s not necessarily the link player Adam [Lallana] is. So players and their particular skill-sets, and areas where they are effective, are not always what’s commonly perceived. Dele’s biggest strengths are arriving in the box, timing his runs, finishing and scoring goals. If he can add consistency into his touch and creativity of pass into that, he’ll be a better player than he already is.
“The whole team needs to be more streetwise. By streetwise I mean managing periods of pressure in games, and how we deal with that. Understanding the right thing to do at the right time. That applies to us, definitely. It’s one of the areas we have to be better at if we’re ahead in games, or if one team is down to 10. You manage moments in games, and that’s the key. A key area we’ll focus on more going towards the summer.”
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