Gareth Southgate had displayed his ruthless streak as England manager long before the confirmation of his 23-man World Cup squad and those left out on Wednesday were the latest examples of his determination not to be swayed by reputation.
Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere and Ryan Bertrand joined Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott, Daniel Sturridge and Chris Smalling on the list of players to be discarded during his 18-month reign in charge. Billed as a safe pair of hands when appointed as Sam Allardyce’s successor in 2016, following the controversial departure of his predecessor after just one game in charge, Southgate was portrayed as football’s Mr. Nice Guy.
But, since taking on full-time a role over which he was initially hesitant, he has been bold virtually every step of the way with his decisions and selection and his squad for Russia, which has an average age of 26 years and 18 days, is all about potential and possibility, rather than a second or third shot at redemption for those who failed before.
Whether England can win the World Cup remains to be seen and, with a potential quarterfinal vs. either Brazil or Germany, a place in the last eight may well be the limit of Southgate’s ambitions. But at least this squad will go into the tournament without too many scars of the past, burdened by memories of abject failure and an inability to cope with pressure.
There are no survivors from those taken by Fabio Capello to South Africa in 2010 and only five of Roy Hodgson’s Brazil 2014 party — Gary Cahill, Jordan Henderson, Phil Jones, Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck — have made the plane. Southgate has simply cleared out the old guard; he started with Rooney and Walcott during qualifying and completed the job by leaving Hart, Wilshere and Bertrand at home.
However, don’t fall for the suggestion that this is all part of a masterplan designed to prepare for Qatar 2022, because football doesn’t work like that. Too many players come and go between World Cups — Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley, for example — so this is all about the here and now. Southgate believes the players selected are the best options; if they are also still around in four years’ time, so much the better.
It is difficult to question any of his selections. The omissions are the right call and while the younger picks — Trent Alexander-Arnold is uncapped and just 19 — may lack the experience of those they have replaced, Southgate is not exactly blessed with a variety of alternative options.
In goal, the big call was overlooking Hart, who his 75 caps but was farmed out on loan by Manchester City for the past two seasons. With Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland obvious choices, Southgate has taken a chance on Burnley’s Nick Pope on the grounds of form, which should, in reality, always be the first criteria.
Defensively, there are good options rather than great ones. John Stones has had a difficult season at Manchester City, but Southgate is a confirmed admirer and the 23-year-old is seen as crucial to plans to play three at the back.
The absence of a top-level playmaker in midfield is a problem that Southgate has had to grapple with since taking charge, so his options in that area lack the creative flair of the leading nations in Russia.
Wilshere may once have had the potential to tick that box, but the Arsenal midfielder now lacks the requisite fitness and finesse. Physically, he also struggles to compete against the most accomplished teams and players.
The decision to place Adam Lallana on standby is a surprise, considering Southgate’s admiration of the Liverpool player, but it is also a pointer to the manager’s determination to have a squad without pre-existing fitness concerns. Lallana’s injury-ravaged season has cost him, with England also denied the services of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain following the knee injury he sustained last month.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is Southgate’s biggest gamble but the Chelsea midfielder, who spent the season on loan at Crystal Palace, was outstanding against Germany and Brazil last November and so has earned the chance to impress in Russia.
Up front, Southgate possesses a world-class striker in In Harry Kane, while Jamie Vardy once again proved his credentials for Leicester with 20 league goals this season. And with Sterling and Jesse Lingard offering a goal threat from midfield, the concerns over Marcus Rashford’s form and Danny Welbeck’s ability to avoid injury are not quite as worrying.
Indeed, another noteworthy aspect of the squad concerns the versatility offered by many players. For example, Alexander-Arnold, Ashley Young, Fabian Delph and Eric Dier can play in defence and midfield, while the attacking midfielders included also offer a certain fluidity.
There can be no escaping the fact that this squad is largely unproven at international level, with the shadow of Euro 2016 and the defeat against Iceland still hanging over the team at a major tournament. But Southgate’s selection has brought a freshness and sense of realism to the England set-up; the big question is how long that will last before misplaced optimism takes over.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_