After Gareth Southgate named his England squad for Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine and friendly against Scotland, Sky Sports’ football journalists analyse the key talking points.
England squad in full…
Goalkeepers: Sam Johnstone (Crystal Palace), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal)
Defenders: Lewis Dunk (Brighton), Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Levi Colwill (Chelsea), Fikayo Tomori (AC Milan), Kieran Trippier (Newcastle), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ben Chilwell (Chelsea)
Midfielders: Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Eberechi Eze (Crystal Palace), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Jordan Henderson (Al Ettifaq), James Maddison (Tottenham), Kalvin Phillips (Manchester City), Declan Rice (Arsenal)
Forwards: Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Bayern Munich), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Callum Wilson (Newcastle), Eddie Nketiah (Arsenal)
Opportunity missed for change?
Consistency and caution, they are the watchwords of the international manager reluctant to be caught up in the vagaries of form that can sway the fan or, frankly, journalist. For the rest of us, England’s wins over Malta and North Macedonia in June are barely a memory.
For Southgate, they are the starting point for his selection. Two convincing victories. Eleven goals scored without reply. Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire started both matches. Three Premier League games into the season, it was not enough to alter his view.
And yet, seldom can the case for change have been so compelling. Whatever the morals of a move to the Saudi Pro League, Henderson, now 33, would surely have known that he was vulnerable to the first flash of form from, say, West Ham signing James Ward-Prowse.
This was not Jude Bellingham heading to the Middle East. Not even Cristiano Ronaldo with all the emotion and politics that brings for Portugal boss Roberto Martinez. It is Henderson, a player whose World Cup selection was debated in the winter even before his move.
Southgate stays true, priding himself on taking that extra breath before making the big decisions. It has been an asset over the years, created a better culture too. One wonders, nevertheless, whether this was an easy opportunity for change needlessly eschewed.
Can Nketiah hold down role as Kane’s back-up?
Eddie Nketiah may face an uphill battle to hold down a regular spot in Arsenal’s starting XI but his impressive form at the start of this season has done enough to grab Gareth Southgate’s attention.
Despite his relative lack of experience – at the age of 24, he has failed to start more than nine league matches in any season – Nketiah is a fairly reliable scorer of goals, netting at a comparable rate to Gabriel Jesus, the Gunners’ regular No 9.
Critics may point to Nketiah’s penchant for missing big chances – only Darwin Nunez has spurned more per 90 minutes since the start of last season – but the fact that he ranks third for expected goals per 90 among all Premier League forwards during that period shows Nketiah is highly capable of getting into scoring positions.
Also working in Nketiah’s favour is his commendable record for England U21s, having scored 16 goals in just 17 games.
Southgate has shown a willingness to reward players for excelling at age-group level and, though it may have come a few years after he graduated from the U21s, Nketiah has now been handed his chance.
Is Alexander-Arnold’s midfield transformation complete?
From a right-back barely able to scrape into the England squad to then starting No 10 in a competitive match, it’s been quite a couple of years for Trent Alexander-Arnold on the international scene.
The defender’s hybrid role has been championed by club boss Jurgen Klopp, but it is often forgotten that Gareth Southgate first moved him into midfield in September 2021, in a World Cup qualifier with Andorra.
At the time, it appeared a short-lived experiment which Klopp said he “didn’t understand”. Less than two years on, Alexander-Arnold was at it again, this time wearing England’s famous No 10 shirt and picking up the man of the match award for his goal and performance in the 4-0 win over Malta in June.
Now his transformation appears to be complete, after he was categorised as a midfielder in England’s squad list for the latest round of fixtures.
Though only really seen by the media and compiled by members of the Three Lions’ communications team, they will have been aware of the eagle eyes poring over every detail of the announcement, including this one.
How long it lasts remains to be seen. After all, Alexander-Arnold’s three international midfield appearances to date have come against teams all ranked outside the top 50 in the FIFA rankings. Far tougher tests await. But this explicit nod to his midfield move suggests it’s here to stay for now, at least.
Pope’s quiet decline noticed by Southgate
Nick Pope was absent from the previous England squad after undergoing surgery on his hand. It was expected now back to full fitness and having played every minute of Newcastle’s Premier League season, that he would regain his spot alongside Jordan Pickford and Aaron Ramsdale. But Gareth Southgate, surprisingly, has given Crystal Palace’s Sam Johnstone the nod.
Should we be surprised though? Johnstone’s form for Palace has been steady if not spectacular but it could be more to do with how Pope’s form has quietly dipped over the past six months and his last appearance for England might still be fresh in Southgate’s mind.
Pope gifted Germany an equaliser in the Nations League clash at Wembley that ended 3-3 when fumbling a routine shot from Serge Gnabry with three minutes left, leaving Kai Havertz to pounce.
Newcastle’s defence isn’t as formidable as you might think, too.
Liverpool’s double salvo at the weekend means the Toon have kept just two clean sheets in their last 21 Premier League games while Pope has seen a dramatic decline in his save ratio which has fallen from 83 per cent to 68 per cent in the last 21 matches.
That statistical nosedive, along with the key issue of Pope not being as comfortable or progressive on the ball as Ramsdale and Pickford, may make it hard for the Newcastle cult hero to battle his way back into the fold for next summer.
Blow for Sterling but time on his side for the Euros
Raheem Sterling, once such an ever-present for England, has now been left out of three consecutive squads by manager Gareth Southgate less than a year out from the Euros.
Injury kept him out of the thinking in March and then again in the summer. Southgate explained in May that he’d shared a phone call with Sterling, who felt he wasn’t operating at the level required, essentially ruling himself out of the Euro qualifiers against North Macedonia and Malta.
Sterling used his extended summer break to reset, refocus and recover after a dismal first season at Chelsea. A new diet and a new manager have brought about his return to form but it’s not been enough to get him back into the England picture, even in an expanded 26-player squad.
Sterling, it appears, thought he may have been included. A report in Thursday’s edition of The Times, claiming the Chelsea forward was hoping to revive his international career, and his response to his omission indicate as much.
“Raheem isn’t particularly happy and I understand that,” said Southgate, who described it as “a difficult decision” to leave Sterling out. The Chelsea forward, it is understood, respects Southgate’s call and is planning to use his time over the international break to focus on his form for his club.
The message coming from Sterling this season is clear: he is on a mission to get back to his best. Two goals from three games this season shows that journey is well underway.
Tensions will certainly be rising among those England players insecure about their place in the squad ahead of another major tournament but Sterling has enough credit in the bank to remain calm. As we saw with Marcus Rashford at the World Cup, Southgate is not shy about bringing established players in from the cold for the biggest stage.
JWP, Watkins and others unfortunate to miss out
England squad announcements are rarely met with universal approval. It is the nature of the beast. But what would they be without controversy?
This time around there are four notable absentees who can, arguably, have every reason to be feeling hard done by.
Take Ollie Watkins, for example. The Aston Villa frontman has scored three goals and provided two assists in four appearances in all competitions so far this term. His last cap came in March 2022 and his wait for the next will go on with uncapped Eddie Nketiah and Callum Wilson – who has played only 64 minutes for Newcastle this term – selected ahead of him.
The same can be said for West Ham pair James Ward-Prowse and Jarrod Bowen. The former started the season at Southampton – with an assist in his one and only game – and has since slotted perfectly into David Moyes’ side, with a goal and two assists in his first two outings for the Hammers. Bowen has two goals and an assist to his name, too, having starred in a side without Declan Rice that is currently sat second in the Premier League.
Then there’s Ben White, who has played every minute for Arsenal so far this season. He too has not played for England since last March and left the camp for personal reasons during last year’s World Cup. He appears to remain behind Harry Maguire – who has not played for Manchester United so far this season – in the pecking order. Let the debate continue.
What’s next for England?
England face a Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine in Poland on September 9 before taking on Scotland at Hampden Park in a friendly three days later as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of their first match in 1872.