In one of the quieter moments at Wembley on Thursday, Gareth Southgate made quite a surprising comment.
The discussion was about the idea of a fixed England XI. For many around the squad, there are really only four certain starters. The general feeling is that they are Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire.
After that, so the thinking goes, it’s pretty much up for grabs. Kane and Sterling could have any one of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford or Callum Hudson-Odoi around them. Maguire could have one of a few centre-half partners, while the full-back pairing doesn’t quite feel fixed. The midfield remains revolving. It isn’t, however, how Southgate is thinking.
“If we had to pick our best team tomorrow, we’d be very clear on what that was,” the England manager said.
That is what is surprising, especially since it’s hard for anyone else to pick.
You could at least hazard a guess at that being something like the following: Pickford; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Maguire, Tyrone Mings, Ben Chilwell; Harry Winks, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; Sterling, Sancho, Kane.
Except any guess is exactly that because obvious choices don’t necessarily prove obvious fits in terms of how a team works. Southgate doesn’t necessarily think certain players link up as well as with others, and there are the extra qualities he feels figures like Ross Barkley give.
That in itself speaks to England’s strength in depth right now, but also speaks to a different question, and one more fundamental to the very management of this team. Would Southgate - or any modern international manager - prefer a fixed XI, or is the very variety a quality? The latter would certainly seem to fit the flow of a speedy team like England.
It is something only further complicated by the quirks of the international game. Many of the best club teams no longer have obvious best XIs and thrive on the variability offered by their squads, after all, but then they work at a level that moves at a far greater pace. The international game can often feel glacial in comparison. What is true now could be wildly untrue by the time of your next competitive match, such is the gap between fixtures. After Kosovo on Sunday, it’ll be seven months until England’s next one - their Euro 2020 group opener at Wembley. Little wonder some federations have been lobbying for “rugby-style” international breaks of four games, to develop that bit more cohesion.
Southgate touched on a lot of this in confirming that he would prefer an obvious first XI, albeit with a lot of caveats.
“I think you’d like to have a settled team,” Southgate began. “But that best team can change over the next six months, with form, certainly with injury. So we’ve always got to prepare, keep the squad involved, prepare the squad in the best possible way. Because, in the end, we could invest in securing an 11 now and then, come March, three or four could be out. Ox is the classic example of that. You know, we thought in March ahead of the World Cup he was in a really good groove to give the sorts of performance that he’s given tonight. Then, he’s out and you’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”
It is why Southgate is now working off a much bigger canvas, one with a good sketch of that best XI, sure, but also drawn so many other players can be easily pencilled in. This is the balance he now has to strike. The relative ease of this qualifying group has allowed some experimentation, but it really starts with the final qualifier away to Kosovo, since Euro 2020 is now secured.
A certain fluency certainly feels ideal, especially given the examples Southgate drew from previous competitions.
“You’ll all remember plenty of tournaments where we’ve had a key injury on the eve of the tournament, and then we’ve all been in meltdown about what might happen.”
Classic cases were David Beckham’s metatarsal ahead of 2002 and so many similar Wayne Rooney situations. The country’s top scorer so rarely seemed to go into tournaments fully fit, which itself took away from the completeness of the England team.
Given there is now actually a debate whether Kane is actually at his physical peak, and should be replaced, the only player touching that kind of status is probably Sterling. Even there, though, England are blessed with options. The mobile forward position Sterling operates in is probably where the squad - and the entire English football culture - is at its strongest.
“In those wide areas with Callum, as well, with Jadon, we can see the potential in him and with Raheem,” Southgate said. “That’s why we’ve gone to a 4-3-3 because the quality of our wingers and the depth of that coming through and the depth of number-eights coming through, suits that way of playing, really.”
But… “In any team you can’t have ten Raheems and Jadons and Rashfords without having the glue to piece that team together and without having the right people to win the ball back and the leadership and the drive that teams need.”
This is another balance Southgate is going to have to strike. And it is why the midfield feels like its such a mystery, with considerable doubt over whether a previous certain starter like Dele Alli will even be picked for the squad.
It is actually a pity in that regard, as well as in terms of the occasion, that the Kosovo match has been sapped of its intensity. Their defeat away to Czech Republic on Thursday ended their chances of automatic qualification and ended the prospect of Sunday’s match being the greatest occasion in the country’s brief history. It would have been quite a scene: a passionate new nation playing a previous World Cup winner to try and secure a first ever tournament qualification. It would also have been quite a test for a reshuffled England side, and maybe there the perfect fixture to test options.
As it is, Kosovo are now guaranteed a play-off spot, but that means Southgate’s team aren’t guaranteed the same type of run-out. Any statements will be that bit quieter, but feed the debate that will only grow louder over the next few months.