Gareth Southgate praised revitalized Jesse Lingard, Luke Shaw and John Stones after the trio joined uncapped Ollie Watkins and Sam Johnstone in England’s squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Four months on from their challenging autumn schedule, the Three Lions kick-off the road to Qatar 2022 with a March triple-header as preparations for the rearranged European Championships continue.
Southgate had to juggle a number of injuries when naming the 26-strong squad for the qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland, with England’s attack particularly badly hit.
With Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes, among others, ruled out, Southgate turned to uncapped Villa striker Watkins following his impressive start to life in the Premier League.
The 25-year-old just pipped Patrick Bamford to a spot and is joined in the squad by Johnstone, whose fine performances for the embattled Baggies saw him fill the gap left by injured Jordan Pickford.
Asked how close Leeds striker Bamford had been to being included, Southgate said: “Very close. There’s a number of positions on the pitch in this squad that there are some really close calls.
“We felt we wanted an extra striker in the squad. We’re really pleased with Harry, we’re really pleased with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and what they’ve done.
“Tammy Abraham hasn’t really been involved for Chelsea over the last sort of four to six weeks.
“Both Ollie and Patrick, in particular, their goals record has been good. We like the personalities of both.
“Ollie is a player that we’ve had less interaction with in the past, it’s going to be good to get to know him.
“We like his pressing, we like his speed and the runs in behind. He’s got some improvement to make in linking the game but his first season in the Premier League at a big club he’s done exceptionally well.
“That’s been a really close call because all of the things I’ve said there about Ollie I could have said for Patrick as well, so he’s very unfortunate.
“And, who knows, we could be sitting here in a few days’ time and we’ve had a problem and Patrick’s a player that we’re very much looking at as well.”
Trent Alexander-Arnold was surprisingly dropped for this month’s matches, while Jude Bellingham was selected despite the expectation that coronavirus restrictions in Germany will rule the Borussia Dortmund midfielder out.
Harry Winks and Abraham were overlooked due to a lack of game-time, but Lingard got the nod despite making just nine appearances this season.
The 28-year-old has, though, scored four goals in six appearances since joining West Ham on loan from Manchester United in January and is recalled along with Shaw and similarly resurgent Stones.
“There’s never been any question in our mind about the quality of all three players,” Southgate said. “All have had difficult times really, mainly due to injury.
“Jesse, of the three, you’d have to say is a little bit more fortunate to be in. I think Luke and John have performed over a period of time.
“We’ve got injuries in the attacking areas that have opened up an opportunity for Jesse, but I have to say his performances for West Ham have been excellent. He’s got four goals in six games.
“We know he can perform at the level, we know he’s been a really good member of our squad, both in terms of his general link-up play but he’s scored goals for England as well.
“There’s no doubting his quality. As I said, ideally, you’d be saying, you know ‘you need to do it for a little bit longer’ but that’s not been the option this time around.
“We’ve lost the likes of Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and then one or two others that have been performing well – Harvey Barnes, James Maddison – so there is a space there.
“We trust Jesse and we think he can play a big part in these three games.”
All of Lingard’s 24 caps have come during Southgate’s reign, with the attacking midfielder’s last appearance coming in the Nations League third-placed play-off against Switzerland in June 2019.
Fellow 2018 World Cup semi-finalist Stones most recently played for his country in November 2019, while the last of Shaw’s eight caps came in September 2018.
“I think often we talk about coaches and managers and the impact on players,” Southgate added.
“But in the end you have to give players a lot of credit when they bounce back from disappointment, when they come back from difficult injuries.
“When they regain form, very often that’s been a lot of soul searching, a lot of hard work on the training pitch and adjustment in their preparation and their lives.
“And I think Luke and John, in particular, in this squad deserve huge credit for that.”