Gareth Southgate moved to dismiss the “misconceptions” that have built around James Maddison after giving him a shock call-up to his World Cup squad. The England manager also recalled Marcus Rashford, Callum Wilson, Conor Gallagher and Ben White as he looked forward to travelling to Qatar early next week and kicking off the tournament against Iran on 21 November.
The manager has selected Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips despite their fitness issues but he felt that he could not include Reece James, who would not have recovered from a knee injury until the latter stages. There was disappointment for Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guéhi, James Ward-Prowse, Jarrod Bowen, Tammy Abraham and Ivan Toney – all of whom were omitted.
Southgate made a personal call to Maddison on Thursdaymorning to tell him the good news. It came out of the blue for the Leicester playmaker, who feared he would remain in the cold despite his outstanding form this year.
Maddison has played only once for England, as a 56th-minute substitute against Montenegro in November 2019. The previous month, he had withdrawn from the squad for the games against the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, citing illness. He was then photographed at a casino while his teammates lost in Prague, leading to uncomfortable questions for Southgate and the sense that the ultra-confident player might not be a good fit with the manager.
Southgate said that the casino episode had been a bigger issue for Maddison than him as he offered a ringing endorsement of the now 25-year-old’s character and ability to be a good tourist in Qatar.
“There are some misconceptions, perhaps, about James,” Southgate said. “He is a bit of a football student. I was with him at an Under-21s tournament and my experiences with him then and when he was with us was that he wanted to talk about the game and what was expected.
“I’ve always said that not selecting him was for football reasons and in the main the capabilities of others in the group. I’ve got no concerns about how he will be with the group.”
Southgate insisted that Maddison could force his way into the starting XI – the same is true of every player, he added – and he concluded a couple of weeks ago that he could ignore him no longer. “He is playing as well as any of the attacking players in the country,” Southgate said. “He can offer something different.”
Rashford is back after a torrid season last time out, during which Southgate first overlooked him for the friendlies in March. The striker’s previous England appearance came in the Euro 2020 penalty shootout defeat against Italy, when he missed his spot-kick.
The forward has been much improved under Erik ten Hag at Manchester United, scoring seven goals – most recently the far-post headed winner against West Ham at the end of last month. Southgate sees him primarily as an option off the left, running in behind opponents, although he said that he could use him as a backup to Harry Kane in the middle.
“He is showing signs with United that the joy of playing is back in his face,” Southgate said. “I’ve seen him arrive at the far post with a header which is quite staggering. They are things that we’ve talked about over the years. He’s looking more like the player we’ve seen and I think he can be even more than that.”
With Maddison, Rashford and the in-form Wilson on board, there is a boldness about Southgate’s selection, which also takes in the threat and pressing energy of Gallagher.
Wilson won the last of his four caps in October 2019 but he has forced Southgate’s hand with six goals in 10 Premier League matches for Newcastle this season. Southgate made the point that Abraham, who he had picked in all his squads since October of last year, had chosen a bad time to stop scoring at Roma.
Phillips has barely played all season but he did return from a shoulder injury as a substitute for Manchester City against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday. Southgate has taken him because he is the only specialist defensive midfield support for Declan Rice, although he is mindful of the need to build Phillips’s fitness. Walker is not yet back in full training after groin surgery but he should be available before the end of the group stage.
Southgate promised to continue to engage with questions about Qatar’s dismal human rights record, despite Fifa ordering the competing nations to focus on the football.
“Frankly, I will choose if I speak or not and I am sure the players will as well,” he said. “I don’t think we are necessarily going to be swayed by that communication. We have to be focused on the football but we will speak when asked. We will answer questions and rightly so.
“I am not sure there is a lot more I can say on those topics that is new, if I am frank. But we are in a position where we do have some influence and we have tried to use that.”