Gareth Southgate says he took the difficult decision to drop Trent Alexander-Arnold because of the right-back’s struggles in his England squad this season as well as the decline in his performances for Liverpool.
The England manager has given maiden call-ups to the Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins and the West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone for the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland this month. He has recalled Manchester United’s Luke Shaw, John Stones of Manchester City and the on-loan West Ham midfielder Jesse Lingard.
There was no call-up for Leeds’s Patrick Bamford, and Southgate took the late decision to include Jude Bellingham, even though it is unlikely that Borussia Dortmund will sanction his release because of concerns over coronavirus quarantine rules.
The real surprise was Southgate’s omission of Alexander-Arnold, who was stunned to be told the news in a phone call from the manager on Thursday morning. The 22-year-old finds himself behind Kieran Trippier and Reece James in the pecking order at right‑back and possibly also Kyle Walker, who Southgate has played as part of a defensive three.
There will be no further opportunity for Alexander-Arnold to work with Southgate before the manager announces his 23-man squad for the European Championship finals, which begin in June.
“I don’t think that Trent has played at the level that he found in the last couple of years but he’s getting very close to that now,” Southgate said. “In the last couple of weeks, he’s definitely taken steps in the right direction. It’s simply that we think Reece James and Kieran Trippier have had exceptional seasons with their clubs. Kyle Walker is in great form, too.”
Southgate also namechecked Leeds’s Luke Ayling and Aston Villa’s Matty Cash as others doing well in the position, along with the options at England Under-21 level, which include Norwich’s Max Aarons and Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey. He did not mention Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Alexander-Arnold contracted Covid-19 in pre-season and Southgate said it “definitely had an impact on him for our matches in September”, when he came on against Iceland and started against Denmark. “It was impossible to expect him to perform at his best when he had missed such a big chunk of training,” Southgate said.
Alexander-Arnold played only one game in the October break – starting the victory against Belgium – before he missed the November fixtures because of injury. “I feel like I have got to look at myself a bit with Trent … I don’t feel that he has hit that level he’s hit with Liverpool here with England, and other players have,” Southgate said.
“There is [only] a small opportunity in terms of our matches [for him to get back in] but there is a quarter of a season at club level. That includes some big Champions League games. That door is definitely open. I realistically did not think I would be sitting here today picking a squad with John Stones and Jesse Lingard in it. Trent is closer to this squad than they were to our autumn squads four months ago.
“What I’ve said to Trent earlier today is that I’ve made that same call to Kyle and Kieran in the past and their response was a good one and they’ve found themselves back in the squad.”
Southgate, who also left out Michael Keane, Harry Winks and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, said he was not fixed to the 3-4-3 system he has used for most of the season, raising the possibility of a switch back to a four‑man defence. Southgate recognised the need to “be flexible” because of the high number of injury absentees for this squad and the probability of more of the same before the Euro finals means.
“What we have felt is that the availability of different players will give us the option to play in a different tactical formation,” he said. “We are a team that might benefit in different matches from having that opportunity to play different profiles of players in different systems.
“What is clear is that in the autumn we might have wanted to try certain things but we never had [Marcus] Rashford or [Raheem] Sterling for the majority of the games, for example. And we did not have [Phil] Foden for some of those games. You are always adapting and this time we are having to adapt to the loss of other players.”