Rich Laverty explains why international managers make the selections they do and the reasoning behind making tough calls.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the same arguments on social media when an England squad is announced.
“Why is so and so not selected?”, “What has she done more than her?” The usual. To be honest, out of context, they’re generally fair questions, but context is critical in football, more so when discussing international squad selection.
Because the reality is choosing a national team squad is a whole different ball game to domestic selection. That’s whether you’re Phil Neville, Vlatko Andonovski, Gareth Southgate or the national team head coach of the Tahiti women’s team.
While there’s a nice ideal in wanting and believing that an England squad should be made up of the best 23 – or 28 in this week’s case – at that very moment in history, it’s just not the reality. It never has been, it never will be.
While club teams may select generally the same players every week in search of consistency, the truth is it’s not too dissimilar at national team level, just much more stretched out over a period of time.
While the aim of Casey Stoney, Emma Hayes or Gareth Taylor is to win every week, the aim of England is to win at the European Championships and World Cup, which are still 18 months and two-and-a-half years away respectively.
The reality is Neville’s squad selected to take on Germany this month probably won’t look too different to the one his successor Sarina Wiegman will select in 2021.
The reason being, first and foremost, consistency is crucial. Form at club level can fluctuate, and any national team head coach is going to struggle to build a side if they chop and change depending on who is flavour of the month.
The most common rule of football is to have a solid goalkeeper and back four. How can a national team head coach nail down a consistent defence and goalkeeper if those selected change every month depending on who is playing well?
Of course, there are benefits to selecting those in form, but what if that form only lasts six months? That won’t help either Neville or Wiegman in their quest to lead the Lionesses to a major trophy.
The majority of the social media consternation on Tuesday morning surrounded Manchester United goalkeeper Mary Earps.
There’s a more than fair argument that on form Earps is unlucky to miss out, especially given Neville has selected four keepers rather than the usual three.
International football is cruel. Cruel in its timing, cruel in its ruthlessness. When Earps was number one at a relatively solid Reading side, Karen Bardsley was the undisputed England number one, no ifs, buts or maybes.
A year on the bench at Wolfsburg perhaps didn’t help, but she’s now the number one at one of the biggest club names in the world. But at 27, Earps is still in single figures for caps, generally it just hasn’t worked out.
The same goes for others, like her United team mate Amy Turner and Man City defender Gemma Bonner, who are both now also past the point of being classed as a ‘youngster’.
Turner turns 30 next year and has four caps. Bonner will turn 30 during the same month and is perhaps the unluckiest given she captained Liverpool to two league titles and is now a mainstay at Man City, but her days were already numbered when Mark Sampson settled on a partnership of Steph Houghton and Millie Bright.
That’s the problem. However good you are, it is not long in international football until someone younger and more exciting comes along and pushes you out of the way. For Turner and Bonner, see the likes of Leah Williamson and Grace Fisk.
For Earps, see Ellie Roebuck, Hannah Hampton and Sandy MacIver, with MacIver the eldest of the trio at just 22.
Neville has clearly settled on a young trio of goalkeepers he believes can be in place for the Lionesses for the next decade, maybe even longer. The reality for the likes of Turner and Bonner is it doesn’t really matter how they performed last Sunday or the Sunday before, national team coaches are looking at how you can perform in two or three years time.
There are players in the current England squad who are perhaps not ready to be there, and arguably and admittedly some older players who no longer merit a place on form. But international football isn’t just about the 90 minutes, the players are tucked away on a camp for almost two weeks, living in each other’s pockets 24 hours a day.
The fact Carly Telford, who is no longer a regular for Chelsea, was picked over Earps caused much anger for many, perhaps fairly, again when just looking at form. But Neville admitted in his media call on Tuesday that Telford’s experience can be relied upon to help the three younger goalkeepers. It’s bits like that people don’t often see or understand.
Telford is six years Earps’s senior, she’s played at major tournaments and she played in a World Cup semi-final last year. She is currently best placed to offer guidance, advice and expertise to a trio of inexperienced keepers during an international camp, form or no form.
Ironically, Earps’s United team mate Millie Turner hasn’t had the best of starts to the season, and on form was possibly more deserving of a call-up during an impressive 2019/20 campaign. But her performances this season won’t matter if she is ready to perform in 18 months or in 2023, that’s how it is.
These players now need exposure to top international football. Earps played against Germany last year, Neville will learn nothing by seeing her play them again this month. He might learn everything by playing Hampton or MacIver. The same goes for Esme Morgan, Ella Toone or Niamh Charles, all of whom have been selected again, despite two of three not overly troubling the first 11 at their clubs.
The Germany game is a no pressure opportunity for some younger players to gain vital experience against a top side. Throwing them into that occasion for the first time at a home Euros will do them no good.
The dynamics of squad selection are just so different, it’s about the bigger picture, not about what happened on Sunday. Ellie Roebuck’s rush of blood to the head for Chelsea’s third was never going to see her dropped, nor was Millie Turner’s headed winner at Tottenham the clinching factor for her selection, both were always going to be there whatever happened at the weekend.
I can empathise with fans who get frustrated. There are players I’d like to see selected based on how they are playing too, but that just isn’t international football. This is an opportunity to prepare for the future, with selected experienced players on hand to offer guidance.
If Stoney rested Mary Earps for a Continental Cup tie to offer Emily Ramsey match time and experience, there would be no issue, no outcry. The differences are not so big, this is about rotation and a chance to give those who will be the stars of the future the time they need to shine.
I had the privilege to speak to then USA national team head coach Jill Ellis before she won her second consecutive World Cup, and it was a chance to ask someone who had the medals to show for it how she went about selecting a squad for a tournament.
How she emphasised that Abby Wambach would have gone to Canada in 2015 “even if she was on one leg” stuck with me, because Ellis knew of Wambach’s importance to the team off the field, even if she could no longer contribute as much on it.
The same arguments will continue to happen and will no doubt happen again before England play Norway at the start of December, but the harsh realities of national team selection are here to stay.
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty