Gareth Southgate has said his England squad are being put under heavy pressure from their clubs to manage their involvement with the national team amid an imposing schedule of domestic and international football.
England face Iceland on Wednesday at Wembley in their third game in seven days and one that, with Belgium having put paid to any hopes of topping their Nations League group on Sunday, is of little outward consequence. It intensifies players’ workloads in a truncated season and Southgate is acutely aware of the competing interests with a claim on their time.
“The players want to play for England,” he said. “They are in a really difficult situation. They are under huge pressure from their clubs. That is going on in the background, for sure. That is the landscape, whether it is made public or not. That is the reality. It manifests itself in different ways but that is what happens.
“But I also have empathy with the club managers. We do not just have two or three clubs in the title race any more; we are looking at six or seven clubs in England and there is huge pressure on every result. Everybody is looking to try and gain an advantage, and if they feel someone else is getting an advantage they want to make sure their voice is heard as well.”
While appreciating the clubs’ concerns, Southgate said England “have to make the most of the games we’ve got” given only four matches remain – including a set of World Cup qualifiers in March – before the buildup to Euro 2020. He also suggested there was once a time when he would have tried harder to accommodate all parties’ requests.
“In terms of the managers there’s a power game the whole time – whether that is phone calls, messages, press conferences, we know everything that goes on,” he said. “Everybody is inevitably going to fight their own corner. Four years ago I started thinking: ‘I’d better be careful of that, and careful of that’ and then what can you do? If you start going down that route we have to pick one from every club and it’s impossible. So I’ve got to do what’s right and it’s correct that we have managed those with a heavy schedule through Europe in the friendlies, in particular, and with the training.”
Ben Chilwell returned to training but remains under assessment with a back issue, while Jordan Henderson has returned to Liverpool after feeling tightness in a leg against Belgium. Southgate suggested he would blend youth with experience against Iceland and Jack Grealish is in the frame for a third consecutive start, although he advised managing expectations of the in-form Aston Villa playmaker.
“We couldn’t put all the pressure on Harry Kane, we couldn’t put all the pressure on Raheem [Sterling], other players, and we’ve got to make sure it’s the same with Jack,” he said.