Gareth Southgate has warned his missing Manchester United contingent that they face a battle to regain their places for the World Cup as he looked ahead to the challenges of an unprecedented mid-season tournament, which begins on 21 November.
The England manager is preparing for the fourth and last game of the end-of-season Nations League programme against Hungary at Molineux on Tuesday night. But his thoughts are increasingly focused on fine-tuning his squad for Qatar – expected to number 26 players rather than the usual 23 – and how he will manage what he called the “strange lead-in” to the finals.
During a look through the potential marginal gains, Southgate was asked whether United’s lack of Champions League football next season might leave their England players a little bit fresher. “We’ve only got one with us,” Southgate shot back, with a nod towards Harry Maguire. “They’ve got a lot to do to get back in the squad.”
Southgate was referring to Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho – the former out of the picture because of injury, the latter pair omitted because of poor form. Shaw, too, has had a disappointing season, although with Southgate without a recognised left-back – Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell only returned on the final day of the season for his club after a six-month cruciate knee ligament injury – Shaw would appear to have a clearer route back.
Southgate was surprisingly unsympathetic towards Rashford when he dropped him for the March get-together, noting pointedly that the forward had withdrawn from six of the previous eight squads. He called the decision to exclude him and continue to overlook Sancho as “fairly straightforward.”
It is not a phrase that Southgate would use in relation to the World Cup countdown. After the Hungary game, his players will mostly have only three weeks off before reporting to their clubs for pre-season and the matches will come thick and fast once the new campaign starts. The Champions League group phase, for example, will be squeezed in from 6 September to 2 November.
Southgate said there would be “midweek fixtures every week, whether that’s a couple of League Cup weeks, definitely six European weeks and midweeks with Premier League games.” He added: “It’s manageable but the demands on the players are huge and we are all conscious that we can’t keep adding to the calendar.
“We are still paying the price of Covid, really … having three games in international windows, four games now [in the Nations League], partly due to the timing of the World Cup because we lose the October camp so everything’s condensed. I am sure players are gaining more of a voice in this and understandably so.”
England have only one more camp before they depart for Qatar on 15 November – they play Italy (away) and Germany (home) in the Nations League on 23 and 26 September. The Premier League will pause after the fixtures on the weekend of 12-13 November.
Southgate brought up a potential issue before the World Cup when he wondered what would happen if a club had an England player with an injury. Would they want to keep the information in-house, rather than tell the Football Association, for fear of it leaking to their upcoming opponents?
Southgate will submit a long list of players to Fifa on 21 October, although it does not need to be made public. He is expected to announce his final squad on 9 or 10 November. The Fifa deadline is Monday 14 November, when England are scheduled to meet up.
Southgate admitted he would have no control over the players in the weeks leading up to the Premier League pause. “Information sharing is pretty good medically and we get the performance data from the Premier League so you’ve got some markers,” he said.
“But equally there’s always an understanding that clubs that have big games might not want to share certain things too early if they’ve got players that might miss games. In general we have decent relationships with the clubs on that stuff but there’s always going to be a bit of an element of the unknown in that period.”
The Premier League fixtures for next season are to be released on Thursday – the first game will be on Friday, 5 August – and Southgate hopes that there will be no massive games on the weekend of 12-13 November. Indeed, the FA have made that specific request.
“We have asked the Premier League to have a think about things but we also understand that the fixture programme is very complicated,” Southgate said. “We’d have a preference for none of those big games [on 12-13 November] but to be honest the difference it’s going to make is fairly marginal.
“It could help us, perhaps, with a medical report. If a team played Saturday, it would give us an extra day to assess. Because we’re going to have to meet on the Monday and fly on the Tuesday. We’re going to have to make really quick decisions on medical situations, in particular. So that’s the only thing that we’re looking at that might help us. We understand the landscape but we’d be stupid not to ask the question if it could make a difference.”