The right calls? Southgate’s key England World Cup squad decisions examined

After the manager named his 26-man squad for Qatar we look at the surprise selections, defensive concerns and fitness issues

Maddison makes it in

Nothing came as a bigger shock than the revelation that Gareth Southgate has bowed to the clamour to include James Maddison. England are not exactly in a position to overlook creative talents, but even people close to the Leicester playmaker were not expecting him to be in the squad. All the talk was about the doubts over Maddison’s personality; he has not been involved and the sense was that infamous visit to the casino while he was meant to be on international duty in 2019 was going to count against him.

But there is no need for any outrage. Who said Southgate was too conservative? Maddison, whose only cap came three years ago, has made himself impossible to leave out. He has 22 goal involvements in 2022 (13 goals and nine assists) – a record bettered only by Harry Kane, Kevin De Bruyne and Son Heung-min – and is a huge threat from set pieces. The only question is whether he will be given a proper chance to solve England’s lack of imagination in open play.

Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford (Everton) Nick Pope (Newcastle), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal). 

Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Conor Coady (on loan at Everton from Wolves), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Newcastle), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ben White (Arsenal). 

 Midfielders: Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Kalvin Phillips (Manchester City), Declan Rice (West Ham), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool).

Forwards: Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), James Maddison (Leicester), Raheem Sterling (Chelsea), Callum Wilson (Newcastle).

Rashford returns

There is no question that Marcus Rashford deserves his recall. The Manchester United forward has not played for England since his miss in the penalty shootout defeat by Italy in the Euro 2020 final, but he is over his injury problems and Southgate has never closed the door on him. England need a fit and focused Rashford. He boasts tournament experience, can fill roles on the left or through the middle and he is the third-highest goalscorer during the Southgate era. In a squad short of reliable finishers, it would have made no sense to leave out Rashford. He has been in good form for United and his willingness to run beyond defences could be helpful for Kane, who loves to drop deep and release his fellow forwards with clever through-balls.

Wilson edges out Toney and Abraham

The role of being Kane’s deputy is not an enviable one. England’s captain is a guaranteed starter and rarely comes off. All the same, the biggest fear for Southgate is losing Kane to injury. No striker has shown they are capable of filling in for the Spurs player. Tammy Abraham has been underwhelming for Roma this season, scoring only four goals, and has rarely impressed for England. As for Brentford’s Ivan Toney, he failed to catch the eye in training after Southgate called him up for the first time in September.

Neither Abraham nor Toney can have many complaints about being edged out by Callum Wilson. The former Bournemouth striker has been in fine form for Newcastle, who are third in the Premier League, and has deservedly returned to the fold. Wilson, whose last cap came in October 2019, leads the line well, has six goals this season, offers good movement and takes penalties well. What’s not to like?

Defensive concerns

Southgate has taken a few risks. An obvious dilemma is having Luke Shaw as the squad’s only specialist left wing-back. Losing Ben Chilwell to a torn hamstring was a blow, but Southgate has decided that he can live with the versatile duo of Kieran Trippier and Bukayo Saka as cover for Shaw. Youngsters such as Crystal Palace’s Tyrick Mitchell and Tottenham’s Ryan Sessegnon had not quite done enough to fill the hole left by Chilwell.

The problem, though, is that Trippier is likely to start at right wing-back and Saka struggled when he started at left wing-back against Italy in September. Ultimately Southgate has had to compromise. Injuries are inevitable. He has also lost Reece James, who would have started at right wing-back, and has replaced the Chelsea defender with the Arsenal centre-back Ben White, who has been playing as a converted right-back this season.

The situation at the back is not ideal. The Manchester United centre-back Harry Maguire has started one league game since August, John Stones has been playing at right-back for City and Eric Dier’s recent performances for Spurs have been iffy. Intriguingly though, Southgate has not crammed his squad with centre-backs. He has omitted Joe Gomez, Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guéhi and Tyrone Mings, enabling him to name more attacking options.

Luke Shaw battling with Raheem Sterling this season.
England do not have a natural left-back as understudy for Luke Shaw (right). Photograph: Tony Obrien/Reuters

Gallagher squeezes in

One of those players is Conor Gallagher. Southgate is often accused of picking on reputation rather than form, but selecting the Chelsea midfielder slightly squashes that narrative. The energetic, enterprising Gallagher has caught the eye in recent weeks. He had a slow start to the season and was left out by Southgate but he has flourished since Chelsea’s appointment of Graham Potter, who has given the 22-year-old plenty of opportunities. Selecting him is bold. The pragmatic move would have been to pick Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse.

Walker and Phillips make it in

Although Southgate explained that it would have been too much of a gamble to pick James, he has decided to take Kalvin Phillips and Kyle Walker. Phillips has made one substitute appearance for City since shoulder surgery in September; Walker, who had groin surgery last month, will not be ready when England face Iran in their opening game on 21 November. Yet both City players were considered too important for Southgate to leave out. Phillips impressed in midfield during the Euros and Walker’s recovery speed makes him invaluable at the back.


Jacob Steinberg

The GuardianTramp

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