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Gareth Southgate the axe man: Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson victims of ruthless edge

Gareth Southgate the axe man: Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson victims of ruthless edge
Gareth Southgate has taken a bold step by omitting Jordan Henderson - Reuters/Carl Recine

As Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Raheem Sterling and – now – Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford will testify, there is a ruthless edge to Gareth Southgate. But then, there always has been. People were just not paying attention. The England manager has dropped them all, ending the international careers of the first two and probably those of the next two, also.

“I know people have always said we have got our favourites but the fact is we have got players who we knew were the best in their position and were able to deliver at a high level. But circumstances change,” Southgate said after dropping a few bombshells – and a couple of those perceived favourites – in announcing his provisional 33-strong squad for the European Championship.

“Look we’ve had to evolve,” Southgate said. “Wayne and Joe Hart were brilliant in how they accepted it at the time. We had to clear space for other people to come through. The job is about making difficult decisions at certain times. You can’t shy away from that. I don’t think I ever have. They’re hard conversations but you do them as respectfully as you can.

“But that’s why we have younger players now with a lot of experience and we have to continue…so, yes, you’re looking ‘when are the right moments?’ ‘is this a fair decision?’ ‘is what we’re losing more detrimental than the positive of what we’re bringing in?’”

Still for neither Rashford nor Henderson to make the enlarged list, which will be reduced to 26 on June 7 before England fly to Germany three days later, is surprising and there was then a telling line from Southgate as he explained his selection: “That gives a different dynamic to training and competition for places. It doesn’t allow complacency within the group.”

Complacency? It was an interesting word for Southgate to use in the context of a squad widely regarded as one of the favourites for the tournament but which is, in fact, suffering from something of a crisis with injuries hitting hard and key players struggling.

Still it would have been the ‘safe’ option – something Southgate has wrongly been accused of taking in the past – to nevertheless select Rashford and Henderson especially as he was calling up a bigger squad.

Gareth Southgate the axe man: Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson victims of ruthless edge
Marcus Rashford faces a battle to get back into the England team - Reuters/Marko Djurica

Surely it bodes well, therefore, that he has taken such a clear-eyed approach – he bridled when he was asked whether he had been “brutal” – with a swathe of players chosen because they have been England’s best for their clubs during this campaign. So many England managers, Southgate included, have previously been accused of not selecting on form with the squad being too settled. So, it was not either Anthony Gordon, Jarrod Bowen or Cole Palmer for this squad but all three – now not at least but maybe also for Germany – at Rashford’s expense. Given their drop in form, it is an approach that must have Jack Grealish and James Maddison sweating.

“We think we can see who the best players have been across the season and we are going to need players to come into the game as well at a really high level that can be hugely important for us,” Southgate said. “We have always tried to find room for emerging players.”

Interestingly Julian Nagelsmann, the German coach, has taken a similar approach in naming his preliminary squad of 27. Out have gone stalwarts such as Leon Goretzka, Serge Gnabry and Mats Hummels and in have come players from the in-form teams – Bayer Leverkusen (with three), the unbeaten champions, and runners-up Stuttgart (with five).

For England, Southgate’s selection has to be refreshing even if it throws up an unexpected problem because, despite what the manager argues, suddenly there could be a potentially inexperienced squad that has the look of the future when it needs to be about the here and now.

For example, in the 33 there are only 15 survivors from the 26 who went to the last World Cup and that was just 18 months ago. And only 16 of the 33 have more than 10 caps while Harry Maguire is the third highest goal-scorer with seven. The absence of Rashford and Sterling alone means two players are not going with experience of nine major tournaments between them.

“Yes, you would like players playing regularly, fully fit, with a load of caps and experience of winning but it doesn’t dictate everything,” Southgate argued. “We’ve got to pick the players that we think at the moment are the best ones to take the team forward. We believe that the Gordons and the Bowens have had brilliant seasons. We liked the hunger that they came in with in March.”

The reality is that Adam Wharton, James Trafford, Jarrad Branthwaite, Jarell Quansah and Curtis Jones – all uncapped – they probably will not make the cut. Not this time. But they have a chance and not least because Southgate is spending a large amount of the build-up working through medical updates on players he wants to select.

“Our view is that some of these boys will be England internationals in the future, some might not be but they’ll all benefit from the experience,” Southgate said. “And they’re all in because they’ve had good seasons, they’re playing well and they’re contenders to be in the squad.”

The danger with that – and something Southgate absolutely must avoid – is suggesting this will be a squad for the future, a squad with potential, even if that is what it is starting to look a little like. At least until it is reduced to 26. Then we will have a clearer idea.

Given the strength England possesses, and despite the problems, it must ultimately be about the Euros and the immediate task in hand. But Southgate has not stood on ceremony. He has not played safe. And that bodes well.

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