Gareth Southgate made his reputation as England’s mild-mannered assassin. He ended the international careers of Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart. He showed a willingness to move on to the next generation. But then, having forged a team, he has been transformed into a loyalist. Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips – combined total of minutes this season: 0 – were included in the squad to face Ukraine and Scotland and few should be surprised.
There were reasons for each; a lack of fit centre-backs with international experience, a shortage of specialist defensive midfielders. Yet there was a notable absentee, a player with more football and in better form than Maguire and Phillips, a face of Southgate’s England. But, once again, a squad did not contain Raheem Sterling’s name.
In March, fitness accounted for his absence. In June, it was the forward’s preference, Sterling asking for a break to work on his conditioning. In September, it will be managerial preference. Southgate’s explanation focused on loyalty: to the players who beat Malta 4-0 and North Macedonia 7-0 in June, to ones who have begun the season as well as Sterling.
It was, though: “A difficult call and Raheem was not particularly happy about it.” A quarter of a century earlier, when Southgate made Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup squad and Paul Gascoigne did not, the midfielder responded with a tantrum. Sterling’s response was more polite, but his disappointment evident. “Raheem is always really respectful with how he responds, and deals [with things], he will always say ‘I respect your decision’ but of course he wants to get back in the group,” Southgate said. “I wouldn’t expect that to be any other way.”
But the expectation was that he would be back in a squad that instead contained Eberechi Eze. Sterling has looked rejuvenated for Mauricio Pochettino at Chelsea; he was arguably man of the match even in defeat to West Ham, he scored twice against Luton. “It’s not a decision I have based on the three games he has played,” Southgate said. “What I am hearing him say, he’s very focused and I am under no doubt that he’s going to have a really good season with Chelsea, I think they are going to go well. He looks like he’s back in the groove to score a lot of goals.”
Which he has done for Southgate’s England: only Harry Kane has scored more in the manager’s reign. For a long time, he and Kane seemed the two certainties in the forward line, with everyone else competing to accompany them. Southgate does not call every player omitted from his squads: that he rang Sterling was a reflection of the importance he used to have.
“Firstly he’s a player who has been a really big player for us, an important part of our team, and I wanted to address the fact that he’s playing really well,” he said. He painted it as a continuity choice from June, waiting for the season to unfold. “By next month we will have had another seven, 10 games and there will be a lot more evidence right across the board, of all the players and where they are at.”
And yet the reality is that the wings are the area where England boast the most strength in depth. Southgate listed his rivals’ credentials: Marcus Rashford was involved in three goals against Nottingham Forest, Phil Foden was exceptional against Newcastle, Jack Grealish set up Erling Haaland’s opener at Sheffield United and Bukayo Saka has carried on where he left off last year.
“We have got Foden, Grealish, Rashford, Saka, so there’s four for two positions,” Southgate reflected. “Maddison also played there. Whichever one I didn’t pick was going to be the story.”
But Sterling is: a player with 55 caps in his reign, England’s outstanding attacker at Euro 2020, the talisman who realised his potential under sympathetic management, the prodigy who had looked on course to break Peter Shilton’s caps record.
Then Sterling lost his place at the World Cup, albeit in a tournament when he returned to England after a burglary at his house, and amid a car-crash of a Chelsea season. He felt collateral damage in the chaos Todd Boehly brought to Stamford Bridge, a player who had arguably his worst campaign in senior football. “I understood why he wanted to focus on the fitness in June and we are seeing the benefits of that now,” Southgate said. “Of course, when you are not in, other people have the shirt.”
All of which was rational and fair. But it showed a hard edge that he often conceals. Injuries could alter the equation and allow a route back in, yet Sterling will have to displace a high-class player. And for the meantime, it leaves him looking the odd man out, the player whose exclusion is not a one-off as much as a regular occurrence. If it long looked inconceivable that England could enter Euro 2024 without a fit and in-form Raheem Sterling, perhaps it is not now.