Gareth Southgate likes his players to be versatile. It is why England’s squad has four players that can play at right back, rather than four right backs, and why the graphic published this evening listing an attack-heavy 26-man squad had only five midfield players.
And perhaps the greatest example of that flexibility is the second youngest member of the squad, a player listed as a forward but in his four caps used at left wing back.
Bukayo Saka’s involvement at the Euros is unlikely to extend beyond an impact off the bench but Southgate’s explanation for including the Arsenal teenager, and overlooking a more experienced midfielder such as James Ward-Prowse or another striker in Ollie Watkins, was more than partially down to his ability to perform a number of different roles.
The 19-year-old featured in nine different roles for Mikel Arteta’s team this season, although predominantly as a right attacking midfielder. Southgate has also been impressed by how good he has looked in a side that flattered to deceive for much of the Premier League campaign.
“Firstly he’s performed exceptionally well for us and performed well in a team that’s had a difficult season,” Southgate said. “Sometimes young players can go into teams that are playing well and flourish. He’s gone into a team that have had a tough season and have really played with character as well as skill.
“Again we saw when he had to come on in Belgium [last autumn] real personality in his performance. His adaptability, the fact he can play four or five different positions is a real plus for us.”
As for the right back situation, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion was decided upon three weeks ago according to the manager.
The Liverpool star, who was dropped for March’s World Cup qualifiers, finished the Premier League campaign strongly and is set to start against Austria tomorrow night.
Yet Southgate was irritated on behalf of his players by stories, including ones published last night, that said he was going to leave Alexander-Arnold out.
“OK, so I spoke with Trent about three weeks ago. Where the stories over the last couple of weeks that have ended up with lots of strange headlines, lots of strange stories, I’ve no idea where they’ve come from. I felt there were stories that ran that were so far off the truth…
“I would never normally speak to a player because I read a lot of stories about myself that I know are not true but I have to accept that’s the job I’m in and people speculate and write it as if it’s exclusive or anything else. But when it’s a player sometimes, they might feel they’re reading it so maybe it’s true, maybe the manager is speaking to the press behind their back. That’s obviously not the case.
“So even last night, we’re still dealing with that, puzzled, because he’s there taking set plays in the morning for the game tomorrow and he’s reading that he’s not going to the European Championship. I really don’t understand it.
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“For me, it’s not drama. I accept as the England manager it’s what I deal with. I always go back to front page of the whatever it was, I’m the biggest fan of Great British Bake Off, I have Bake Off parties at my house and I’m desperate to be on the show. The only thing in the story that was true was my age.
“That’s the world I live in, but for my players I want to protect them and so again we’re having to speak to Trent last night to say look, I don’t know where this is all coming from, it’s nonsense.
“People then jump on it and say I have an agenda or I don’t like the kid. It’s an incredible situation really but as I say, not bothered about it from my own point of view but I do always think about the players.”