James has been left out of the latest squad for the final two qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia later this month. The Chelsea captain has been gradually eased back into his club side in recent weeks but told Southgate he is not yet up to speed and opted against joining the England squad.
“He was very keen to make clear, ‘Look, I don’t want you to think I don’t want to be there’,” Southgate said of James missing the upcoming camp. “We had a really good long conversation and exchange of messages after that as well. But I’m very understanding. We are all conscious that we want to have a fit Reece James that can play consecutive games, because we can only take 23 to a finals and that physical reliability is going to be really important.”
International managers were able to select 26 players for both Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup, as provisions were made for Covid-19 and then the strain of a mid-season tournament in December. It allowed an element of risk when selecting injured or injury-prone players, such as Kyle Walker, who went to the World Cup while still recovering from surgery.
But the return to 23-player squads at next summer’s Euros in Germany means Southgate can ill-afford to gamble on fitness.
“We’ve never taken crocks,” said Southgate. “We’ve taken some calculated risks on [Harry] Maguire in the Euros, Walker for the World Cup, Phillips in the Euros here with the shoulder operation. They all came through and played. But those risks were less onerous because we had the back-up of an extra three players. So it [the 23-man squad] definitely alters your thinking and the way you’ve got to operate.
“[James has] not had a 90 minutes yet [since returning for Chelsea]. He’s only been able to be with us [this year] really in March for the first part of the camp. But that’s been because he keeps having these moments where he breaks down so we knew he wasn’t 100 per cent. I was clear that we understand that.”
After the upcoming qualifiers, there will be only one more England camp, for two friendlies in March, before Southgate names his final squad for the tournament. James faces a battle for one of England’s full-back spots, a role with plenty of strength in depth where Walker, Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold are all vying for places.
“There is [competition] and that’s the risk,” added Southgate. “He’s only got one more squad before the Euros, so he knows that. We’ve got belief in what he can do. And equally we’re going to learn a lot about him in the next few months playing as a full-back rather than a wing-back [for Mauricio Pochettino at Chelsea] because that’s also a different role that’s going to have different demands.”