Euro 2020 qualifers: England manager Gareth Southgate can enjoy luxury of rotating squad for Kosovo clash
Likes of Gomez, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sancho could all start in Southampton after flying start to Group A campaign
When Uefa introduced the Nations League, part of the rationale was to reduce the number of international friendlies that many had come to deem pointless.
Quietly, England may have reclaimed the friendly. Officially, they have five Euro 2020 qualifiers remaining. They nevertheless have the feel of warm-up games, opportunities to experiment on the assumption that more meaningful games await next summer.
St Mary’s hosts a top-of-the-table clash on Tuesday, but the context is different. It may scarcely rank as an achievement if England reach Euro 2020. For Kosovo, a partially recognised state and a disputed territory whose first official international only came in 2014, it would feel one of the greatest feats in a fledgling country’s history.
They owe their second-place spot to victories over Czech Republic and Bulgaria, past threats who have fallen on hard times and whose teams are starved of the talent their predecessors boasted.
Kosovo’s cast list, in contrast, shows the depth of ability in the Balkans. Their employers include Torino and Lazio, Fenerbahce and Verona. Their group includes footballers who have previously played for Switzerland, Norway and, in particular, Albania, who have been decimated.
Yet the four British-based players are all currently at Championship clubs: Florent Hadergjonaj at Huddersfield, Bersant Celina at Swansea, Atdhe Nuhiu at Sheffield Wednesday and Aro Muric on loan at Nottingham Forest.
And England’s results – 5-0 against the Czechs, 5-1 away in Montenegro and 4-0 versus Bulgaria – prove they are getting more accomplished at swatting aside lesser opponents. They have long benefited from relatively easy qualifying groups. They are getting better at inflicting thrashings.
Factor in the emergence of a young generation and Gareth Southgate has a strength in depth that allows him to make changes with next summer in mind.
Cramming the enviable options into 23 spots is no easy task.
The competition for places at right-back is such that Kyle Walker is not even in the squad.
Kieran Trippier, omitted for the Nations League, played against Bulgaria. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who seemed the first choice after an excellent June display against Switzerland, perhaps ought to be restored.
Southgate has stated that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was in line to start at the World Cup before injury ruled him out.
It would be no surprise if a chance was granted to a favourite whose pace suits the manager’s high-octane style of play and whose aptitude for 4-3-3 was proved at Liverpool.
The absence of another of Southgate’s preferred players, the ill Jesse Lingard, sets up a potentially intriguing choice. Like Frank Lampard, Southgate has fast-tracked Mason Mount.
He has harboured more reservations about James Maddison, describing the Leicester midfielder as a No 10 earlier this year and pointing out England did not field one. Yet Maddison, the only player to create 100 chances in last season’s Premier League, rarely plays as a 10 now for Brendan Rodgers. He has passed the test of adaptability.
In defence, Joe Gomez’s evident potential to be not just a squad member but a starter may secure in another start. He and Ben Chilwell may be above Michael Keane and Danny Rose in their respective pecking orders, but the fact neither began against Bulgaria suggested Southgate’s experimentation is already underway.
He faces decisions in his forward line, too: having said he sees Marcus Rashford at his best as a “wide raider”, it puts the Manchester United man in direct competition with Jadon Sancho for the last place in the first-choice front three and the Dortmund teenager has made a stunning start to the Bundesliga season.
If either is a substitute, it will only underline the luxurious position in which Southgate finds himself, and not just because England already feel assured of playing in Euro 2020.
Updated: September 9, 2019 07:18 PM