IF England do not defeat their oldest enemy at Hampden Park, we are in danger of drifting back into ‘Boring, boring Gareth’ territory.
After seven years as Three Lions boss, Gareth Southgate says he “understands the never-ending cycle” which comes with a job they used to consider impossible.
Gareth Southgate backed his decision to stand by Henderson in his pre-match press conferenceCredit: Getty
But faces pressure to bring Foden into the midfieldCredit: PA
Since Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Ukraine, there has been a renewed clamour for Phil Foden to start in a central role in place of Jordan Henderson.
But before tonight’s clash with Scotland, though, Southgate was having none of it.
Foden says he prefers to operate in central midfield but Southgate, damningly, asked why Pep Guardiola rarely plays him there for Manchester City.
And he suggested Foden could only do so against weaker opposition because he is not strong enough out of possession.
And Scotland are no weak opponents these days.
Steve Clarke’s men have a 100 per cent record in their Euro 2024 qualifying group and they are up for planting a proper Glasgow kiss on Southgate’s side.
The Three Lions could do with a win here to silence a seething mass of unusually-confident Scots — and to avoid a serious change in mood from the English public towards Southgate.
But Southgate is never one to play to the galleries when it comes to team selections.
He insisted that 33-year-old Henderson — who has opted for semi-retirement in the Saudi Pro League — produced his most energetic England performance ever against Ukraine in Wroclaw.
The message was clear — Southgate is in no mood to ditch the former Liverpool captain.
It is the issue of Foden which has again become a lightning rod for those who believe Southgate — England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey — is terminally cautious.
It seems, though, that the manager will continue to regard the City player as a second-string wideman rather than a first-choice playmaker.
Asked if Foden can play in a midfield three in England’s biggest matches, Southgate said: “He doesn’t play there for his club. So presumably there is a reason for that. It depends on the level of the game, really. In the middle of the park, everyone wants to talk about players with the ball but there is a lot of detail without the ball.
“And in the Ukraine game, you are playing opponents who are so clever with their passing and movement that you have to be spot-on with pressing angles, your responsibilities and if you don’t, you don’t get the flow of the game.
“You’d have to speak to Pep, who is the best coach in the world, who plays him from wide.
“He’s always got the freedom to drift if we play him wide, though, and that’s important.”
Foden believes central midfield is his best position, though?
“But he doesn’t play there!” Southgate replied
Has he discussed it with Pep then?
“Yes, yes,” said Southgate and then left a very pregnant pause before adding: “We are very happy with Phil. He’s played in the Euros, came on in the semi-final of the Euros and had a big impact.
“He’s played at a World Cup, he’s only 23, he’s got amazing experiences.
“He is still progressing and learning but he is a super player.
“We’ve got a lot of really good young players, so it’s not been straightforward.
“He has been with us from a young age and was in the team that won the Under-17 World Cup but he’s battling against Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford and all of the other players we have in that area of the pitch and at his club, with an incredibly high level of players.”
Southgate still regards Henderson, Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice as his first-choice midfield three — and that may not change before next summer’s Euros finals.
With Henderson’s controversial move to Al-Ettifaq making him an unpopular selection for footballing and ethical reasons, Southgate used his running stats in Poland on Saturday to champion the veteran’s cause
Southgate said: “We have got good contacts at his club, so we have been monitoring his level.
“The physical outputs have been mixed because the climate has been different for different games but he was in good physical condition.
“All of his data, he was hitting what he should have done. And his outputs on Saturday were the highest he has had at an England game.
“In terms of the job he was doing, he had to cover a lot of space.
“Our midfield wasn’t as tight as we might have been and Hendo and Dec covered a lot of ground and closed a lot of spaces up. It was absolutely critical to us getting a result.”