MILAN (AP) — England coach Gareth Southgate is taking inspiration from his rugby counterpart, Eddie Jones, by continuing to pick valued players even if they are not regularly competing at the highest level.
In his book entitled “Leadership: Lessons from my Life in Rugby,” Jones wrote about how he selected players from English champion Saracens — like star flyhalf Owen Farrell — despite the team’s relegation to the second tier at the end of the 2019-20 season following salary-cap breaches.
Southgate likens that to the situation he finds himself in two months out from the World Cup, with players like Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell retaining their places in the England squad despite limited game time in the English Premier League this season.
Maguire and Shaw were regulars for England in its run to the European Championship final last year.
Referring to Jones’ book and the selection of Saracens players, Southgate said: “Even on reflection, he felt they were his best players and although they were undercooked, they were still going to be better than players that weren’t at the level. So I don’t think there are many players that aren’t here now that are at the level yet to go in and play.
“Look, clearly, it’s not an ideal situation. You want your best players playing regularly so that they’re physically in a good place and mentally in a good place. But he (Maguire) is an important player for us. I think it’s important to back our best players.”
Southgate said he was willing to stake his reputation on Maguire, who is set to start against Italy in the Nations League on Friday despite not starting for Manchester United in its last four Premier League games.
The situation could change, though, Southgate warned.
“The squad we’ve picked, there are a fair number of players you could argue we could have left out at this point but I think we wanted to keep that group together and to keep them involved, keep them feeling part of it,” Southgate said after arriving in Milan late Thursday.
“But also they know that, for some of them, that they need to be playing more regularly because now we’re only a few weeks on from preseason so physically if they’ve had a few 90 minutes then that’s fine. Another seven, eight weeks, then that does start to become more complicated.”
Southgate said Maguire deserved to still play for England because of the specific qualities he and fellow center back John Stones have.
“Him and John are incredible with the ball really — the amount of pressure they have taken for the team in tournaments we have played because we don’t always have that midfield pivot player who can progress the game,” Southgate said.
“It means there is a huge amount more pressure on our center backs to use the ball well and those two are as good as any in world football at doing that.”
Harry Kane is also set to play against Italy in one of England final two games before the World Cup and the striker said he feels in the best shape of his career, physically, after hiring a personal physiotherapist following repeated injury problems.
Kane was ruled out with a hamstring injury in January 2020 and, coupled with the break in the calendar caused by the coronavirus pandemic, did not return to action for almost six months.
After that injury, he was recommended a physio — Kane didn’t disclose his name, only that he was Spanish — by a fellow athlete and has since only been sidelined by minor niggles.
“He’s been really great for me,” Kane said. “We’ve worked for hours and hours over the three years, built up a really good relationship and I feel like he’s really helped me.
“I’ve seen changes in my body in terms of what my ankles were like before and now after. I’m in a totally different place. So it’s really pleasing, I’ve kept that under the radar.”
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The Associated Press