Gareth Southgate says James Maddison’s “exceptional” form earned him a recall to the England squad for the World Cup after a three-year absence.
Maddison was a surprise inclusion in Southgate’s 26-man squad to travel to Qatar next week, almost three years to the day since his one and only appearance for the Three Lions in their final Euro 2020 qualifier.
That sole cap came a month after he had been photographed in a casino days after pulling out of a previous England squad through illness – something which had been blamed for his exile from the international scene since.
“That was unfortunate from his perspective, it became a bigger issue than it was for me,” Southgate told reporters during his squad announcement. “You end up in the papers, nobody likes that. I live with it every day so I don’t take any notice of it, but it wasn’t the drama for me it was for everyone else.
“I think at various stages there have been conversations and debates about James. Ahead of the Euros, I don’t think he was in contention, he had a bit of a problem with his hip. In September, his inclusion was a fair debate.
“He’s always been up against some good players in that area of the pitch, and there have been moments we were playing 4-3-3 with no No 10, so his profile didn’t quite fit. He’s playing exceptionally well, we like the fact he finds those pockets of space, he gets turned and plays forward. Not enough players do that in this day and age.
“His set-piece delivery is outstanding, and he can score goals from distance. Against low-block defences, that is another attribute which is a little bit different to some of our other players.”
Maddison’s club manager at Leicester, Brendan Rodgers, was equalled delighted for the 25-year-old: “I think his level of consistency, the work ethic, the talent and what he’s proven over the last few years has swung that decision for him because he’s a fantastic player and one of the best players in the Premier League. I’m really, really delighted for him.”
Southgate revealed Maddison was one of few members of the World Cup squad he had spoken to personally – with Callum Wilson among those not contacted – having focused on those who had been left out from a spot on the plane to Qatar instead.
“I did speak to James because there was a lot of speculation that he wouldn’t be with us. We’d decided a couple of weeks ago that he would, but we weren’t going to tell him then,” he said.
“He was delighted, I had some calls which were at the other end of the spectrum emotionally and it was nice to give myself an enjoyable end to that.
“I’m excited about going to a World Cup, it’s my fourth and that’s a privilege and an honour. All of those calls, the difficult ones and the enjoyable ones, were a reminder of what it means to the players.”
Maguire ‘still one of England’s best defenders’
Harry Maguire’s inclusion in the England squad comes despite the fact the Man Utd captain has fallen out of favour at Old Trafford and has only started one league game since their 4-0 thrashing at Brentford in August.
Despite that, the Three Lions regular remains favourite to start at the heart of Southgate’s defence against Iran on November 21, and the England manager leapt to the defence of the centre-back when his place was questioned.
“He is one of our best centre-backs, I think we know within the squad that we have a lot of players that have been to tournaments and performed at the level and know what is required,” he said.
“We have other players who are playing well and in form at this moment, and we have to balance that when we are picking our team.”
James inclusion would have been ‘arrogant’
Injured Reece James was the first question mark to have their World Cup fate confirmed when he announced himself on Wednesday that he had been left out by Southgate.
The Chelsea right-back had looked a shoo-in for a spot on the plane until he was forced off against Milan in October and faced a race against time to be fit for Qatar, until Southgate told him he would not be included as part of the travelling squad.
James had said he was “willing to take the risk” over his fitness, but Southgate said: “We had to make a really difficult call with Reece, who we think is a fantastic player, but he wasn’t going to be available, if everything went perfectly, until the latter stages of the tournament.
“There were too many unknowns for us on that road to recovery and also, I don’t think we can take a player who is unavailable for the group stages. That would be deemed arrogant in some circles.”
Two other players who have had injury issues hanging over their heads in the build-up to the announcement are Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips, who have both been out of action for Manchester City for a number of weeks but will be on the plane to Qatar next week.
“Kalvin played last night so I think with him, he is free of injury,” Southgate said. “We are aware that he’s not going to be able to play seven 90 minutes. That won’t be possible. We are going to have to build his fitness level, but he is available, free of injury and we don’t really have a lot of cover for that role in the country.
“Kalvin is a super player, and we feel that is a risk worth taking. Kyle’s a little bit different because he’s not back in full training yet, but he’s going to be available before the end of the group stage.”
Smith: Maddison has totally earned his place
Sky Sports’ Alan Smith on the Essential Football podcast:
“I always thought James Maddison would make it because he was playing too well not to. In a squad of 26, I’m sure Gareth Southgate wanted to pick him, but even if he had a few doubts he’d be tempted to do it anyway to avoid questions in the press and that little bit of doubt about not picking a player in form.
“He’s totally earned his place. There aren’t many qualms about the whole 26, Gareth spoke about the lads he had to ring up and explain why they’re not going, that’s heartbreaking for them and difficult for him too – but it’s a solid selection he’s made.”