An England star injures himself in the run-up to an international tournament. He rushes his recovery in order to make the final 23.
Manifestly unfit, he hobbles and winces his way through the competition as a passenger, the television cameras panning theatrically towards him after every misplaced pass, scuffed shot and flagging forward run.
Post-elimination, the media pearl-clutching, quasi-apocalyptic talkSPORT phone-ins and drunk-as-a-skunk pub inquisitions (and there’s a lot of cross-pollination between the three) focus on two things: A) how the injury could have been prevented and B) why plans were not drawn up for this eventuality before the tournament.
Like night following day, this is the natural order of things. Every even-numbered year, England fans endure months of squeaky bum time as the slings and arrows of the domestic season begin to take their toll on the players and, in turn, their tentative tournament hopes.
The ’race-for-fitness’ injuries to David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006 are the best examples of England’s anxiety-riddled tournament preliminaries. We haven’t quite reached the level of uncurbed hysteria which saw Uri Geller appear on GMTV to ask the nation to touch their TV screens and use their collective psychic healing powers to mend Beckham’s second metatarsal. Mind you – it is only January.
Recent weeks have seen a barrage of injury blows for England and if things continue as they have been doing, the witch doctors, homoeopaths and TV psychics of our irrepressibly football-obsessed nation might be in for an unusually high-yielding couple of months. In fact, if things continue as they have been doing, we here at Gadsby’s England will be the first ones out foraging in the fields for monkshood and foxglove to rub on Raheem Sterling’s ruptured ACL. Touch wood.
Harry Kane has been ruled out until April with a hamstring injury while a double stress fracture means Marcus Rashford will miss around three months of football in what has been by far his best season as a player. Both incapacitations were at once entirely avoidable and worryingly foreseeable, especially in Rashford’s case.
England’s striker woes deepened on Tuesday night when Tammy Abraham suffered an ankle injury in Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal. The 22-year-old’s condition was severe enough to prompt Frank Lampard to reiterate Chelsea’s need to sign another centre-forward. His flattery of a wantaway Edinson Cavani suggests they might be about to do precisely that – England fans can only hope this doesn’t stunt Abraham’s development.
While it’s unlikely that any of these setbacks are grave enough to prevent any of Kane, Rashford or Abraham from being named in Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad *again, touchwood*, the injury quagmire has cast in urgent light his need to explore alternative options.
With Kane out, Rashford would probably move into the number 9 role with Jadon Sancho taking his place out wide – a serious blow, but England would still have three world-class forwards in their front three. With Rashford injured too, Abraham would be his placeholder upfront – this is where England fans would really start to worry. With Abraham also sidelined, the makeup of Southgate’s front three would be horribly distorted.
It’s imperative, therefore, for Southgate – and for the sanity of the public – that he considers alternatives to the injured three.
Here are five:
The most middle-of-the-road option, Callum Wilson has been a darling of Southgate’s since scoring on his England debut in late 2018, just six years after he was turning out for non-league Tamworth. He has been selected in every squad since, his considerable pace, energetic approach and natural finishing making him a good option coming off the bench in qualifying games against weak and weary opposition.
As a starting option, however, Wilson is lacking. Little more than an off-the-shoulder striker, he wouldn’t fit into the roles vacated by any of the three injured centre-forwards. Diabolical league form won’t help his cause either; until Wednesday night, he was without a goal since September and his 345 minutes-per-goal-ratio is almost three times worse than any of his selection rivals.
For several years, Danny Ings threatened to be a case study in how mismanagement, injuries and ill-judged transfers can ruin a player’s career. He made just 14 league appearances in three seasons with Liverpool, a combination of a knee injury and the superlative brilliance of Firmino, Salah and Mane proving to be his downfall.
Since returning to fitness and joining Southampton however, Ings has looked sharper than ever, netting 14 goals in the league this season – that’s as many as Rashford and Abraham and three more than Harry Kane. Even when Southampton looked completely irredeemable earlier in the campaign, Ings continued to find the net.
His busy style of play and rabid pressing when out of possession mean that, while he lacks the glamour of some of his contemporaries, Ings would be a snug fit in a Southgate team.
Even though Raheem Sterling is in the middle of his worst run of form in many, many moons, he wfould still be better than streets of players upfront, even if it isn’t his natural position. In Manchester City’s League Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, Sterling played as part of a three-pronged attack with no focal point; instead, a trio of false 9s instilled Manchester United’s defence with acute bewilderment and blind panic in equal measure. It’s a system Southgate could look to emulate if he feels there are no suitable candidates to replace Harry Kane as a traditional number 9.
This almost certainly won’t happen, but wouldn’t it be fun?
There are a growing number of young English players raised on FIFA video games and YouTube skill compilations who use flair, not just as a crowd-pleasing aside, but as a central component of their game – Mason Greenwood is certainly one of them. Despite spending close to a billion pounds since the great man’s departure, the most exciting players in the post-Fergie era at Manchester United have all been academy players. Greenwood is a torchbearer for this trend.
Born in 2001, he has scored nine times in 29 appearances this season, a figure made all the more impressive when you consider the fact that he has only started in 11 of these games.
One of the most two-footed players you’ll ever see kick a ball, Greenwood can play anywhere in a front three or as a number 10. If he was named in the squad, it would be as much more than a place filler. Even if he isn’t, it’s a matter of when and not if for him.
We can all dream. Vardy’s return to the England party has been talked about all season in the wake of his blistering form for Leicester City – 17 goals make him the league’s top scorer.
He’s even acting like an England centre-forward, picking up an injury on Wednesday evening during Leicester’s drubbing of West Ham.
There’s no doubt he would improve the squad. The question is whether Gareth Southgate would pick up the phone to recall him and, indeed, whether Vardy would answer. His motives behind international retirement were plain: to prolong his club career. And with 35 goals in 54 game since that decision, it’s working pretty well for him so far.