Gareth Southgate has warned his England players he cannot afford fitness gambles when he picks his squad for Euro 2024 next summer.
With squads reduced from 26 to 23 for the finals in Germany, Southgate is reluctant to wait on players to recover mid-tournament like James Maddison did at the World Cup a year ago.
He will also look to utilise players who can cover more than one position now squads return to their usual size after being expanded at the last Euros to accommodate players quarantining for Covid-19, then in Qatar due to it being a winter tournament.
England have a history of pinning their hopes on injury recoveries - notably David Beckham and Wayne Rooney’s foot woes - but Southgate says there is a limit to the gambles he can take.
“We can take far fewer gambles than we were able to take for the last two tournaments where it was 26,” said Southgate. “The size of the squad makes it a different sort of thought process because you’ve had that leeway in the last couple of tournaments to take players that weren’t going to be fit for the first couple of games. Or a bit of cover in certain positions that you might or might not have needed.
“This time the physical conditioning of players is going to be really important. The ability for players to bat out six, seven games. We know, having been to the end of two tournaments, that physically the demands on that is far greater than we would have known had we not been through that experience.
“So we know that is a huge requirement. If you can only take two for each position, players that are adaptable are helpful. Players that can play more than one position is helpful. But equally players who are physically vulnerable, we will have got to think very carefully about.”
Southgate keen on utility players
Among the players Southgate will be hoping to stay fit is Bukayo Saka, who has suffered a series of knocks playing for Arsenal this season without being sidelined.
“He is clearly a very important player for us and his club,” said Southgate. “He’s a player who does invite contact at times because he receives when he’s tightly marked and receives well when he’s tightly marked. He is very important to his club, they will need to play him. He is crucial to them being successful.”
Marcus Rashford was taken off against Malta as a precaution after colliding with Alexander-Arnold. The Manchester United forward has scored just once for his club this season and joined up with Southgate’s squad late due to a personal matter, but his manager says there are no concerns at international level.
“Before tonight, I think Marcus had scored nine in his last 10 England starts, so we’ve been very happy with his performance. He has obviously not scored many at United,” Southgate added.
“It was difficult against a back five and a wing-back who was man-to-man with him,” said Southgate on Rashford’s performance against Malta. “We didn’t really have a link pass inside for him or a full-back going around him because we don’t have that profile of player.
“Marcus has been normal. I think he enjoys his football with us. He’s been as chatty as always and I have worked with him since the 21s so we’ve come a long way.”