England boss Gareth Southgate has insisted he had no reason to change his preference of central defenders when explaining why he left Chris Smalling out of his 23 man squad for the World Cup.
Smalling hasn’t featured for England since a 2-2 draw with Scotland in June last year, with Southgate implying earlier in the season that the defender lacked the sufficient ability on the ball to function in a back three.
Southgate has opted instead for Harry Maguire, John Stones, Phil Jones, and Gary Cahill as his preferred centre backs, with Kyle Walker – traditionally a full-back – set to feature in that position as well.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Southgate noted that, while he admired Smalling, there was no reason for him to make any changes judging by England’s recent performances.
“He’s played well for Manchester United. I made the decision in November, we had clean sheets against Germany and Brazil,” he said.
“We then played Italy and Holland, so across those four games we’ve only conceded one goal, so I didn’t see any reason to change tack on the defenders we were picking and the way we were playing.
“Chris is a man I respect a great deal, but I think we made that decision in November and I’ve not seen any reason to change the thinking on that.”
Smalling has been the only central defender to be more or less constantly playing at the back under Jose Mourinho this season, who can boast the best defensive record in the Premier League and one of the best in Europe.
For that reason alone, Smalling has a right to feel slightly hard done by, especially following a run of good form which kicked off following a woeful first half against Manchester City in April.
At the same time, however, the World Cup – and Southgate’s approach – entails a certain level of control and positional intelligence, played at a high tempo that Smalling, more often than not, struggles with in quite painful fashion.