England’s World Cup selection issues

DOHA, Qatar — Perhaps the biggest test of manager Gareth Southgate’s loyalty to certain England players comes now. England enter the World Cup round of 16, where they face Senegal on Sunday, with a selection conundrum largely absent in previous tournaments under the 52-year-old: pick players on form or past international performance?

Prior to 2016, there really was no “past international performance” worth considering. That summer, England were humiliated at the round-of-16 stage by Iceland and the gradual transition to a new generation begun by Roy Hodgson was accelerated by Southgate following Sam Allardyce’s brief 67-day tenure.

Yet Southgate subsequently delivered a first World Cup semifinal in 28 years at Russia 2018 and then a first major tournament final in 55 years at Euro 2020. That came through a pragmatic methodology that he is reluctant to entirely abandon, even as the composition of his squad has gradually accentuated towards a top-heavy, creative-led talent pool.

Central to the work he has done in redefining the players’ relationship with the England shirt, specifically embracing the opportunities it presents rather than feeling its weight of past failures, has been a team spirit impervious to club travails. And a key aspect of that separation is the knowledge that previous contributions to the cause are not forgotten. It is why Southgate faces some huge decisions ahead of the Senegal game, partly informed by the way his loyalty has so far been rewarded in Qatar by other players in the squad.

Here, ESPN takes a look at the England players who most clearly represent the form vs. reputation debate.

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Make no mistake: Maguire was lucky to be in this England squad based on his Manchester United form. The 29-year-old centre-back has made just nine appearances for United this season, with one start in the Premier League since August, and AC Milan‘s Serie A winner Fikayo Tomori can feel particularly aggrieved to have been left out. Yet, Maguire’s first three performances in Qatar have turned the clock back to 2018, when he was a key figure at the back and an essential component of the “Love Train,” the nickname given to the line of players assembled for England’s corner routines.

Maguire earned cult-hero status during that tournament and proved himself again as part of England’s defence in five of the seven games at Euro 2020 (only missing the first two due to injury), where he made UEFA’s Team of the Tournament. There have been times when Maguire and John Stones have laboured in possession as they try to play out from the back — most notably against the US — and the suspicion remains that any big mistake in an England exit will reframe his inclusion for some as “Southgate stubbornness.” But his authoritative performances in the group stage have settled any debate over whether Maguire deserves to start ahead of the other defenders in this squad.

Shaw is England’s only natural left-back at these finals. Ben Chilwell‘s hamstring injury, sustained at the start of last month, robbed Southgate of the most obvious challenger to the 27-year-old, who had fallen out of favour at Man United as Erik ten Hag initially preferred new arrival Tyrell Malacia, before Shaw regained his place to start the final seven Premier League games prior to the World Cup.

But there is more going on here. Shaw spoke in March 2021 about a sense of regret over withdrawing from several England camps in previous years, thinking about how much he had been “letting Gareth down.” As he reapplied himself, Southgate handed Shaw another opportunity and he hasn’t looked back, scoring England’s goal in last summer’s Euro 2020 final and cementing his place in Qatar with three solid displays. The pair have a renewed bond as a result.

Kieran Trippier could play at left-back and Bukayo Saka has operated as a left wing-back (unconvincingly) for England, but Shaw was taken off with 25 minutes remaining against Wales when the game was already won, a clear sign that, barring injury, he will surely start against Senegal.

Here’s where things start to get tricky. Sterling was including in UEFA’s Team of the Tournament at Euro 2020 (Harry Kane wasn’t) and was a vital player linking midfield and attack for England at Russia 2018. Yet his club form has been below par since his £47.5 million summer move from Manchester City to Chelsea, where admittedly he has had to endure a change of manager and an even more frequent change of position as Graham Potter has used him as an advanced wing-back on occasion.

For England, competition is ferocious in the attacking positions either side of striker Kane, with Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford making compelling cases for their inclusion with goal-scoring outings against Wales, while Saka and Jack Grealish also have their supporters.

But Southgate has never started a knockout game without Sterling in his lineup. And when Sterling scored from Kane’s pass against Iran, it was the 16th time the pair have combined for an England goal from 60 appearances (now 61.) Kane only has a better record with Son Heung-Min, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, with whom he played more than three times as many games at Tottenham.

Southgate recognises Sterling’s past efforts and, when he was struggling at City last season, the manager is reported to have regularly offered his support if needed, maintaining a close relationship. Only Kane (54) has started more games under Southgate than Sterling (49.) Even though Foden, Rashford and Saka all make strong cases for inclusion, it would be a major surprise if Southgate did not find a place for the winger given their history together.

The groans were almost audible when Henderson was Southgate’s first change as England laboured to a 0-0 draw against the US. But the Liverpool midfielder injected some energy and impetus into England’s midfield, proving he can play a more prominent role than just being one of the key figures behind the scenes to maintain standards and professionalism within the camp.

Henderson is important to the squad dynamic in that respect — defender Conor Coady is another example of this, providing such a positive presence in the group that Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland named him England’s unofficial player of the tournament last summer without actually kicking a ball — and, in truth, he has probably been closer to the lineup chiefly as a result of Kalvin Phillips’ injury more than anything else.

Man City were always upbeat about Phillips’ chances of overcoming his shoulder injury in time to make the World Cup, but he has needed further time at England’s Al Wakrah base to build up his sharpness. In his absence, Henderson started against Wales.

Jude Bellingham has been hugely impressive in England’s midfield and will surely keep his place, but it would be bold of Southgate to pick the 19-year-old and Mason Mount in a 4-3-3 shape with Declan Rice as England’s sole holding midfielder against Senegal. He favoured two disciplined central midfielders last summer in Rice and Phillips, who were maligned for their conservative passing despite Southgate highlighting the stability and cover they gave a fragile defence.

Switching to 3-4-3 is another option, although that would likely mean two of Phillips, Henderson and Mount would miss out. Henderson will most probably drop to the bench, with a cameo role to see the game out should things go to plan.