The first international break since the start of the season and the end of the transfer window comes with a fresh headache for Gareth Southgate ahead of tomorrow’s European Championship qualifier against Ukraine.
When England last met back in June, Jordan Henderson was Liverpool captain and Southgate’s Mr. Dependable, starting the big wins over North Macedonia and Malta, which all but assured safe passage to Germany.
Since then, Henderson has become the first England player to be tempted by the Saudi gold rush and it remains to be seen how Southgate responds to the development ahead of next summer, with Saturday’s match here in Wroclaw, Poland, potentially offering an early indication.
If England were playing another World Cup quarter-final, Southgate would surely want to start Henderson, who has offered England a reassuring balance in midfield since Qatar, allowing Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham more freedom to get forward and express themselves.
Henderson’s defection to the Saudi Pro League leaves his long-term place in the England team in doubt, however, even if the midfielder revealed he had received assurances from Southgate that he would still in consideration before joining Al-Ettifaq.
Southgate has already potentially laid the ground for easing out Henderson in future, saying at last week’s squad announcement that he would assess the impact on the 33-year-old of playing at a reduced level and in intense heat.
“When Jordan phoned me about the likelihood he might be going there, we had an honest conversation,” Southgate said.
“I said: ‘We’re going to have to map you against players playing in a different league and in a different level of competition and we’re just going to have to see how that goes.’”
Henderson’s decision to move to the Middle East also poses uncomfortable questions for an England squad who have previously shown solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community (not least Henderson himself), though Southgate has ruled out dropping him on moral grounds.
Whatever the England manager thinks privately, making a moral case against Henderson would set a dangerous precedent and lead to all sorts of difficult questions: what to do, for example, about Newcastle players, who after all have the same owners as the leading Saudi clubs?
The problem for Southgate is that without Henderson, England’s depth behind Bellingham and Rice feels like England biggest problem area, nine months out from the Euros.
Kalvin Phillips, Henderson’s most natural replacement stylistically, is short of minutes since joining Manchester City and it will become difficult for Southgate to continue picking him if the situation does not change.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was the story of June’s camp, with two eye-catching displays in midfield, but he was withdrawn from the current squad, and anyway Southgate has been quick to stress that he still has a lot to learn before he is ready to face the top teams in his new position. That leaves Conor Gallagher, still inexperienced at international level and finding his feet in a new-look Chelsea team.
It therefore suits Southgate to keep faith with Henderson, amid a sense that it would not be expedient to ease him out yet, whatever the standard in Saudi.
More encouragingly, Rice’s move from West Ham to Arsenal should only benefit the national team, allowing the 24-year-old to more often play the expansive role at club level that Southgate has afforded him with England and experience playing in the Champions League and competing in a title race.
James Maddison, too, has moved to north London, joining Tottenham since the last camp. While Maddison was outstanding as Leicester suffered relegation last season, directly contributing to 19 goals in the League, he is excelling in a different role at Spurs, which may help him finally become an England regular.
Ange Postecoglou, the Spurs head coach, uses Maddison in a hybrid No8/ No10 role, the highest of three midfielders, and Southgate potentially has the option to play him alongside Rice and Bellingham in midfield going forward.
With work still to do to officially qualify and Ukraine talented opponents, however, any experiments are more likely to be saved for Tuesday’s friendly against Scotland in Glasgow, leaving Henderson still in pole position as England’s third midfielder — at least for now.