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Watching from the side-lines of Gareth Southgate’s first, moribund audition to become England’s manager was Michael Keane, enjoying his first international call-up.
It is a deserved reward for Keane, having been subjected to a bid from champions Leicester City in the summer, such was his form in Burnley’s promotion campaign, and having made an impressive start to this season.
The centre-half headed Burnley’s second in the 2-0 win over Watford and was man of the match in the defeat to Arsenal before the international break, so it was a justifiable decision from Southgate to hand the 23 year old, who was a regular in the manager’s under 21 squads in recent years, experience with the seniors, especially with England suffering a worrisome shortage of central defenders.
And experience is the operative word, given Gary Cahill and John Stones were allowed to breeze through Saturday afternoon’s meeting with Malta before the pair, in all likelihood, will be tasked with the tougher task of dealing with Slovenia in Ljubljana on Tuesday night.
With Chris Smalling the only established competition to Cahill and Stones besides the ageing Phil Jagielka and the now forgotten Phil Jones, it makes sense for Southgate to assimilate the likes of Keane, while Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson is likely to soon follow, with the senior squad during the usually facile qualifying process.
Keane was offered his chance after the injury to Glen Johnson, the inclusion of whom drawing, intriguingly, widespread vitriol and disbelief after the squad was announced on Thursday evening.
The Stoke City man’s call-up, for the first time since England’s exit at the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, was made in the absence of Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne, almost certainly Kyle Walker’s deputy in the position if he wasn’t injured.
Southgate would be aware that the second choice right-back probably would not have to play in the two matches so his logic would have been to include the experience of Johnson, a veteran of three major tournaments and holder of 54 caps, in a squad that has only two outfield players over the age of 30.
A lack of experience and leadership was notable as England crumbled in France over the summer and it was a wise move from Southgate to use the 32 year old’s know-how to ease his own introduction into the hot-seat.
That certainly made him a more appealing option than the uncapped duo Joel Ward and Kieran Trippier while good form always helps; Johnson was excellent in marshalling Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford in Stoke’s 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last Sunday.
Southgate knew, as Johnson continues to regain match-fitness following his return from an ankle injury that ruled him out for seven months, the Stoke man was unlikely to have been required to play, and if he had to, Stones could have easily moved across to right-back if needed, he would not have any issues putting him in.
“We’ve gone young, young, young recently. We saw in the Euros in key pressure moments a lack of experience”, said England’s interim coach.
That explained the thinking behind the inclusion so it was bizarre, a symptom of the criticism culture that burns wildly when it comes to England and a misled belief that the bright new model is automatically more attractive than the wiser old head, to witness the reaction.
In the end Southgate had to pick Keane, who will greatly benefit from time with the seniors but will again sit out in the dugout watching on as England face Slovenia on Tuesday.
He will then fly home perhaps the only one who will remember his inclusion and what he has learnt over the past weekend.
A message to those getting unnecessarily hung up on a peripheral squad member; it doesn’t really matter who England’s reserve defender is.
The win over Malta will serve as Southgate’s first part of a 4-game interview for the permanent role such is the limited time scale he has to impress his employers, but it was hard to form any conclusions from the 2-0 victory.
Jordan Henderson offered driving runs from midfield and Jesse Lingard, another regular from Southgate’s under-21 teams, impressed on his debut on the left of an attacking triumvirate.
However a positive half of crisp passing and clever movement gave way to a dull, forgettable second half where England, to a degree shackled again by a struggling Wayne Rooney in midfield, began to run low on ideas despite the introduction of Rashford and Jamie Vardy.
It should come clear, as the captain appeared too often desperate to impress, to Southgate that Rooney no longer warrants a starting place and as Eric Dier awaits the chance to challenge for the midfield spot next to Henderson and the excellent Dele Alli, Slovenia, who will present more open spaces for attackers to play, may be the opportunity for England to try and glimpse at what life would be like without their captain.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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