The dropping of captain Wayne Rooney is not the only message being sent to England’s national team players.
When the squad chosen by Coach Gareth Southgate convenes next week to prepare for a friendly in Germany and World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, the former international defender intends to inform the players of where they stand on the world stage and why it’s not good enough.
“We need to look at who the top teams are and how we get to their level,” said Southgate, capped 57 times by England. “I was in a team that made a semifinal [at the 1996 European Championships] and that has happened once since 1990. It’s my job to analyse what hasn’t been right and then show the lads a pathway. They will then decide whether they want to come on it or not. I think we need to be pretty brutal about the way we look at it.”
Among those not selected for a 26-man squad is Arsenal attacker Theo Walcott, but the dramatic exclusion of Rooney, who has fallen out of the starting lineup for Manchester United, may indicate his national team career his ending at age 31. Instilled as the team captain two and a half years ago and England's all-time top scorer with 53 international goals, Rooney was summoned in the fall during Southgate’s stint as caretaker manager but not for his first camp as the full-time boss.
“We have to look at Wayne as a No. 10, which is his predominant role,” Southgate said. “In the last two games we’ve played Dele Alli there and we’ve played Adam Lallana there. Both are playing very well, scoring and assisting for their clubs. Ross Barkley has been playing very well for his club. So there’s competition. I can’t dress it up any other way. There are some very good players and it’s a battle to get in this squad.”
Southgate has called up Rooney’s United teammate Luke Shaw, who has also been edged out of the starting lineup. England is a bit thin at left back, however, as first-choice Danny Rose is injured, and so the selection is consistent with Southgate’s contention that Rooney has fallen too far down the depth chart despite the player’s declaration that he is clear of injury and fit to play.
Rooney has been invited to a squad meeting Monday to hear from Southgate a stark assessment of where the players stand
. “One of the things I want to talk about is the fact we always talk about what we’d like to achieve but don’t actually look at the reality of where we are,” said Southgate. “Whatever we think we are as a nation, we’ve not been delivering. We seem to have won medals in almost every other sport. Ours is the missing piece.
“That drives me on as much as anything: the need to start recognising where we really are and how we bridge the gap. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the profile of our league, yet eight to 10 years ago we were always involved in Champions League semi-finals and finals. That just isn’t the case any more.”
The stirring saga of Leicester City, which is the only English team remaining in the Champions’ League final eight, is balanced by Arsenal’s crushing 10-2 aggregate loss to Borussia Dortmund and the thrilling yet exasperating elimination of Manchester City by Monaco on away goals in their incredible 6-6 series.
Southgate is also of the mindset that the glamor and money of the Premier League gives a false buoyancy to evaluation of English players. Measured on the world stage, in the major competitions, England is not a top tier team.
“I remember going to the World Cup in Brazil, scouting for the FA,” said Soutgate, “and watching all the montages before games to show the highlights of previous tournaments and it suddenly struck me: ‘We’re not on any, none of our players are on them.’ We think we’re whatever, but I’m looking at the screen and there’s all the Brazilians, the Spaniards, the French, and we’re not there. And I’m almost sinking into my seat because you walk in there thinking you’re part of England, massively proud, but actually on the world stage, we’re not there at the moment. And I think part of trying to affect that is to start saying: ‘Listen, these are the realities.’”
Walcott didn’t react well to the news he’d been dropped when Southgate called Thursday to inform him. With 17 goals in all competitions for the Gunners, Walcott has scored more goals than any of the players on the squad. The call also came on his 28th birthday.
“I’ve got to say he wasn’t chuffed to bits to get the call,” Southgate said. “And I understand that. Did he argue his case? Yes. Quite rightly, he said: ‘I’m one of the leading goalscorers in the league.’
“I don’t mind being challenged on that. I totally respect that. I don’t expect him to be happy but I’ve got to make decisions and I think it was the right thing to call him to talk that through – even if the timing wasn’t great.”
Former England coach Roy Hodgson omitted Walcott from England’s squad last year for the European Championships. Upon taking over for Hodgson Southgate had always called Walcott but apparently wasn’t impressed by his play in the last three games for England; Walcott started in the World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovenia in October and came on as a substitute in a friendly against Spain in November.
“I don’t think he transferred his early-season form into the matches we had in October and November with England,” Southgate said.
Goalkeepers -- Fraser Forster (Southampton), Joe Hart (Torino, on loan from Man City), Tom Heaton (Burnley).
Defenders -- Ryan Bertrand (Southampton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), Phil Jones (Man Utd), Michael Keane (Burnley), Luke Shaw (Man Utd), Chris Smalling (Man Utd), John Stones (Man City), Kyle Walker (Tottenham).
Midfielders -- Dele Alli (Tottenham), Michail Antonio (West Ham), Ross Barkley (Everton), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (Man Utd), Jake Livermore (West Brom), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), Nathan Redmond (Southampton), Raheem Sterling (Man City), James Ward-Prowse (Southampton).
Strikers -- Jermain Defoe (Sunderland), Marcus Rashford (Man Utd), Jamie Vardy (Leicester)