Gareth Southgate has warned his missing Manchester United contingent that they must fight to regain their World Cup place as he faces the challenges of an unprecedented mid-season tournament, which begins on November 21.
The England manager is preparing for the fourth and final match of the Nations League end-of-season program against Hungary at Molineux on Tuesday night. But his thoughts are increasingly focused on fine-tuning his squad for Qatar – which is expected to have 26 players instead of the usual 23 – and how he will handle what he has called the ‘strange introduction’. in the final.
In a review of potential marginal gains, Southgate was asked if United’s lack of Champions League football next season might leave their England players feeling a bit fresher. “We only have one with us,” Southgate replied, nodding at Harry Maguire. “They have a lot to do to get back into the team.”
Southgate was referring to Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho – the former absent through injury, the latter pair omitted due to poor form. Shaw has also had a disappointing season, although with Southgate without an acknowledged left-back – Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell only returned on the final day of the season for his club after a six-month-old knee cruciate ligament injury – Shaw would seem have a clearer path back.
Southgate was surprisingly unsympathetic to Rashford when he dropped him for the March meeting, ostensibly noting that the striker had dropped out of six of the previous eight squads. He called the decision to exclude him and continue to ignore Sancho “pretty simple”.
It’s not a phrase Southgate would use in relation to the World Cup countdown. After the game against Hungary, his players will mostly only have three weeks off before reporting to their clubs for pre-season and one game after another once the new campaign kicks off. The Champions League group stage, for example, will take place from September 6 to November 2.
Southgate said there would be “midweek fixtures every week, whether it’s a few League Cup weeks, certainly six European weeks and midweek fixtures with Premier League games”. He added: “It’s manageable but the demands on the players are huge and we’re all aware that we can’t keep adding to the schedule.
“We are still paying the price of Covid, really… having three games in international windows, four games now [in the Nations League], partly because of the timing of the World Cup because we lose the October camp so everything is condensed. I’m sure players have more and more voice in the matter and it’s understandable.
England have just one side left before they leave for Qatar on November 15 – they will face Italy (away) and Germany (at home) in the Nations League on September 23-26 . The Premier League will take a break after matches over the weekend of November 12-13.
Southgate mentioned a potential problem ahead of the World Cup when he wondered what would happen if a club had an injured England player. Would they want to keep the information internally, rather than telling the Football Association, lest it be leaked to their next opponents?
Southgate will submit a long list of players to Fifa on October 21, although it does not need to be made public. He is expected to announce his final squad on November 9 or 10. Fifa’s deadline is Monday, November 14, when England are due to meet.
Southgate has admitted he will have no control over players in the weeks leading up to the Premier League break. “Information sharing is quite good medically and we get the performance data from the Premier League so you have benchmarks,” he said.
“But equally, it’s always understood that clubs who have big games might not want to share certain things too soon if they have players who might miss games. In general, we have a decent relationship with clubs on this subject, but there will always be an element of the unknown at this time.
Premier League fixtures for next season are due to be released on Thursday – the first match is on Friday August 5 – and Southgate hopes there won’t be any massive fixtures over the weekend of November 12-13. Indeed, the FA made that specific request.
“We have asked the Premier League to reflect, but we also understand that the fixture schedule is very complicated,” Southgate said. “We wouldn’t have a preference for any of these big games [on 12-13 November] but to be honest, the difference it will make is pretty marginal.
“It could help us, maybe, with a medical report. If a team played on Saturday, that would give us an extra day to assess. Because we are going to have to meet on Monday and fly on Tuesday. We will have to make very quick decisions on medical situations, in particular. So that’s the only thing we’re looking at that might help us. We understand the landscape but we would be foolish not to ask ourselves the question if it could make a difference.