When England walk out at the Riverside Stadium for the first of two Euro 2020 warm-up matches on Tuesday, one player will feel a little out of place.
Jesse Lingard is in the peculiar position of being the first name on the teamsheet, yet also knowing that not even a 10-goal haul against Austria would see him make Gareth Southgate’s 26-man party for the delayed country-hopping extravaganza.
Southgate has spoken about picking “the best 26 footballers”, regardless of position. That was his escape route after naming four right-backs in his squad in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker, leaving no room for the likes of Lingard or James Ward-Prowse in midfield.
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But rather than show conviction in his decision, Southgate has taken the bizarre step of saying Lingard will start against Austria. The same Lingard he determined was not in his list of 26 "best footballers" just hours previous.
England have just five games – two friendlies, three group games – before a probable showdown with France, Germany or Portugal in the last 16 at Wembley. The winners of Group D (featuring England, Croatia, Czech Republic and Scotland) will face the runners-up in Group F, an unfortunate quirk of a 24-team tournament, likely one of the aforementioned trio unless Hungary stage a coup. It's hard to see England not fulfilling their end of the bargain.
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Therefore Southgate has two chances, against Austria and Romania, to glean as much information from the squad he has selected before the tournament gets underway. Why waste the first of these opportunities by giving Lingard a weird semi-testimonial at the age of 28?
It might be a good chance to rest the Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United contingent that reached European finals, but this is not the time to draft in extras. If injuries or illness strike down the squad, players may have to be shoehorned into other positions. If Southgate doesn’t trust those in his 26-man squad enough to experiment against Austria, then good luck trying it against France.
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And anyway, Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice and Jack Grealish are all ready to play in the middle on Tuesday. Kalvin Phillips too, if he shrugs off injury concerns. Grealish desperately needs minutes after missing most of the close season. Where is the need for Lingard in all of this?
So far, Southgate has been afraid of taking big decisions – and this again reeks of a manager wanting to soften the blow of leaving one of his key assets from Russia 2018 in the cold. While he might be able to shoehorn all four right-backs into his plans at some point, surely some extra cover in midfield – either with Lingard or Ward-Prowse – would have made more sense. And if he truly believes his 26 are the “best footballers”, why not prove it by fielding a team comprised only of them?
England are 11 days from an international tournament. It’s not the time to be high-fiving someone for reacting brilliantly to not making the squad. Southgate won’t learn anything from Lingard v Austria that will help him win Euro 2020 and, unfortunately, is giving himself one less chance to prepare a midfield for Kylian Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo or Thomas Muller. Why not use every opportunity?
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