Gareth Southgate’s players only have one more chance to prove their World Cup worth, but the England manager insists Jack Wilshere’s absence against Italy is not necessarily the death knell for his hopes of heading to Russia.
Only 90 minutes of international football remain before Southgate names his World Cup squad, with one of the summer’s most high-profile absentees providing the final test on Tuesday evening at a sold-out Wembley.
England head into the match buoyed by Friday’s promising 1-0 win in Holland and Southgate plans to make changes against the Azzurri in a bid to firm up World Cup options that are already taking shape.
He has given 44 different players caps since taking charge in September 2016 – including the now-retired Wayne Rooney – and only injury prevented Wilshere becoming the 45th in Amsterdam.
Tendinopathy in the Arsenal midfielder’s knee denied him a first appearance since the Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Iceland and dents rather than dashes his World Cup hopes.
“I don’t think it’s too late for anybody,” said Southgate. “It’s more difficult because there’s a couple of guys who have been in squads but haven’t had the chance to play for us. But we’ll still be monitoring everybody between now and the end of the season because there’s probably 31, 32 players that would be in contention and none of us knows what will happen in the next eight to ten weeks.”
Manchester City’s Fabian Delph and Watford’s Nathaniel Chalobah are in the same bracket given they missed this get-together through injury, having previously been called up by Southgate but not played.
“We have to assess (the injury record) with every player,” Southgate, pictured, said. “There’s players that have niggles, there’s players that haven’t played as many minutes as others.
“The balance of the squad we have got to get right. The most important thing is that if people are in the squad they’re physically able to play at the level that allows them to show their ability.”
Southgate expects Wilshere to recover from his ongoing complaint in time for Arsenal’s return to Premier League action against a Stoke side with Jack Butland in goal.
The 25-year-old will go into that game on the back of a 90-minute stint for England as the battle for the No 1 jersey heats up, given Jordan Pickford’s assured display in the Netherlands.
Butland’s selection means new boy Nick Pope must wait for his debut and underlines Joe Hart’s place in the pecking order – little surprise given the 75-cap goalkeeper’s struggles at West Ham.
“The circumstances were difficult,” Southgate said of Hart. “The team had got more solid just after he went out of the side, with David (Moyes) coming in and working as he does. That is football, isn’t it?
“You have to take your opportunities. Joe’s professionalism has been brilliant with us, he’s always performed well for us. We had the best defensive record in Europe in qualifying. We’ve continued to defend well, he’s been a big part of that.
“This week, even though he knew he wasn’t going to be playing in the games, he’s been a fantastic influence with the rest of the players – and the rest of the goalkeepers especially.”
Lewis Cook, James Tarkowski and Alfie Mawson will certainly have benefited from Hart’s know-how as they look to win their first caps on Tuesday, when Southgate hopes his players can continue to learn “the nuts and bolts” of playing with a three-man defence.
Harry Maguire has slotted in well to that formation, but is likely to be rested after sustaining a slight hamstring complaint in Amsterdam, where Jordan Henderson skippered the side.
Southgate was unable to name tonight’s captain in the pre-match press conference as he had not finalised his line-up, but Raheem Sterling’s place alongside him suggested he will be involved.
The attacking midfielder did well in Friday’s win in Amsterdam and now wants to take his fine Manchester City form on to the international stage.
“It hasn’t benefited England at all yet because I haven’t really got to the level I want to get to,” Sterling said.