Gareth Southgate has confirmed Bukayo Saka is still “in contention” for Arsenal’s big match against Manchester City this Sunday, justifying his England spot despite a muscle concern and adding that the national team can be completely “trusted” with the fitness of their call-ups. The manager meanwhile added that other players have done more than the omitted Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount.
England play Italy in a decisive Euro 2024 qualifier at Wembley on Tuesday week, with Southgate hoping Saka makes it through until then. An injury from Arsenal’s surprise Champions League defeat to Lens has put the forward in doubt for Sunday, raising questions over whether he should even have been called up. Southgate indicated that there is a chance he plays from the substantial exchange of information between England and the club, and that also ensures there is never any “risk” taken. He had similarly been asked whether Saka is playing too much football.
“I can only go via what Mikel [Arteta] has said about the last few games,” Southgate said. “He is in contention for the weekend so we’ve obviously got a very important qualifier. We look after the players as well as any country. There’s always a focus on our players because they are playing their club football, in the main, in England and then we are playing here as well. Whereas all the other countries call the players that are playing in the Premier League and nobody looks at how they look after them and how they train them.
“When we have really good dialogue with all of their clubs, I think they pretty much all would agree that we probably give better feedback than every other nation. They have trust in us that we make decisions that are right for the long-term whenever we can.
“We only have 10 matches a year. And there’s been times when… Bukayo, for example, we haven’t always played. But there are certain key games where, if it’s possible to have your best players, then you do want to have them. So we’ve got that responsibility of qualifying for the country but, I’ve been a player. I’ve never ever taken a risk on a player’s physical wellbeing. And nor would I.”
In regards to those Saka has superseded as one of England’s top attackers, Southgate said Sterling and Mount hadn’t quite done enough to justify their selection over others. It means Sterling has missed two successive squads.
“I haven’t spoken to him since last time,” Southgate said of the Chelsea forward. “We obviously discussed this going into the last camp. He’d scored two against Luton, but I said then that the wide players we picked, were really happy with. [Marcus] Rashford, [Phil] Foden, Sakaand Jack Grealish have all been consistently good for us.
“With Jarrod Bowen, there’s an opportunity with the Australia game to have a look at somebody we don’t know as much about. He’s been with us, but not as much as Raheem. We know what Raheem is capable of and Bowen has got five in seven, so in terms of the opportunity opened up with [Eberechi] Eze and [Callum] Wilson out, [Ollie] Watkins and Bowen are both in a hot streak of form. That’s the thinking.
“In the end, we’ve got brilliant competition for places in several areas of the pitch. So it’s, yeah, there is a battle now, without a doubt. For a long period of time, Raheem was the one that was scoring goals for us and his club. We now have goals from Saka, Foden, Rashford. Rashford’s always been a scorer with us. Grealish is a different type of wide player, so now we’re getting goals from Jude [Bellingham]. We’re not just reliant on Harry Kane. For a long time, it was Harry and Raheem that were knocking up the goals. But there’s a different competition in place.”
In terms of not calling Sterling, Southgate said there was little he could add.
“Look, I think I’m a pretty good communicator with the players. You can go on and on forever, but I’m always there to talk to them. I think they would have a different level of communication with me than any other coach they have, so, I suppose I could phone everybody every time, but also, what am I going to say from last month?
“Last month he’d scored two against Luton and had a good start to the season, but I outlined the decision and that decision is just as it was last month.”
Southgate said the decision over Mount involved a few more factors.
“I think he’s still settling into a new club and took time out at the end of last season. I think he missed the whole of the end of last season with his injury. He’s getting back up to speed from that long injury at the start of this season – and then he gets another one. Physically he’s getting back up to a level. He’s been an important player for us and we like him a lot. But I didn’t think he’d done enough to be in ahead of the others at this moment in time.”