Gareth Southgate produced a wonderfully eloquent argument for why it would do English football the power of good to resist rushing Harry Kane back into the starting line-up. Even better, he is going to heed it.
Until late on Wednesday there was still uncertainty over whether Kane was going to start against Holland on Thursday. He had told Southgate he was ready, and Southgate was equally frank in his statements about the pressure on managers to select a talismanic figure; particularly a proven match-winner.
Mauricio Pochettino felt the same way before the Champions League final. Yet if Kane reprised the role he played in that match – once again up against arguably the best centre half in the world right now, Virgil van Dijk – it is hard to imagine it would go any better for England than it did for Tottenham.
Harry Kane is to start on the bench for England in Thursday night’s Nations League semi-final
Being able to rest his captain from the start is a sign of strength for boss Gareth Southgate
Southgate knew that. So, he assessed all the evidence, and made one of his toughest calls as England manager. His captain will start on the bench.
This is not a wantonly controversial call. Nor is it to decry Kane’s worth to this team. He is the best goalscorer available, when fit. Yet is he fit?
Despite his protests, he doesn’t look it. Asked about Kane’s performance in the Champions League final, Southgate resorted to the old adage: if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. He dissembled and offered vague platitudes, unable to cling on to any positive.
‘I don’t think it’s for me to comment on club performances in an individual game,’ Southgate said.
Yet if Kane had scored, or had played well, he would have been all over that. Southgate knew he would have to as good as lie to talk up his man. He likes to be as truthful as possible. He couldn’t do it.
Kane may still have a role to play against Holland, but this is the right call. The development of this England squad relies upon not falling back into the habits of the past, when it was all about one man – Wayne Rooney or David Beckham or Michael Owen.
Southgate’s England are more than the sum of their parts. Kane’s presence is important, if he is at his best, but he cannot be wheeled out against all evidence.
The striker was rushed back to fitness by Tottenham for the Champions League final last week
But England’s team these days has lots of competition for places and no reliance on one man
Pochettino gambled in the biggest match in Tottenham’s history and that is understandable. These were exceptional circumstances. With respect, the UEFA Nations League semi-final is not that. This is a tournament England would like to win very much. It is not one to strap Kane upright to a horse, like El Cid.
‘When I took over, I remember talking about how everything had fallen on Wayne Rooney’s shoulders,’ said Southgate. ‘Whenever we’d been to major tournaments, it was about him. I was in Japan in 2002 and everything was around David Beckham.
‘We had to build a team where we weren’t reliant on one player. The burden was shared and the baton is carried by others. We had to share it. Motivation comes from wanting to win, but also from knowing there are players who can come in and take your place.
‘That is where we are with the collective strength of this team. We have huge trust in our players. I wouldn’t hesitate putting any of them in.
‘They’ve played important matches for us. We went to Spain with Joe Gomez, Harry Winks, Ben Chilwell. You never know what they’re capable of until they’re given the opportunity and they’ve thrived on that.
‘All managers have really difficult decisions to make on selections when you have top-quality players who have won you so many matches. There is obviously a bigger temptation to include them.
‘But you’ve got to make decisions on the evidence in front of you. If you’re at a club seeing players every day, you know where they’re at. It’s a bit different for us.
‘We have less evidence and have to make judgments slightly differently. You look at previous performances, club form, what the players are capable of.
‘But we have to prepare a team we believe can cause the Dutch the maximum problems and expose any weaknesses we see.’
It helps Southgate that he can group Kane with the other players on duty in the Champions League final – such as Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson – to soften the blow. It helps, too, that his record as manager encourages faith. He hasn’t got too much wrong to here, Southgate. So he’s probably right about this one, too.
To hear Holland boss Ronald Koeman talk of learning from England is to recognise the measure of advancement made in a short time under this manager.
Holland boss Ronald Koeman admits he has been inspired by Southgate’s work with England
Virgil van Dijk will hope to get the better against players he knows well when the sides meet
It is England who are traditionally in awe of the Dutch; their technique, their tactical flexibility, their faith and projection of youth. If not Holland, then the French are admired and mimicked, or the Germans, the Italians, Spain.
Koeman said, sincerely, that he placed England among the top four nations in Europe. The day Southgate walked in it would have been hard to list them in a top 10.
And while the Nations League may feel a little underwhelming as a spectacle, what is undeniable is that every major football nation took a swing at getting here, and only four made it.
If winning becomes a habit, better to win, surely? If victories at age group level are considered the basis for international success, that must be true of a bona fide UEFA tournament, too.
And following a last-four World Cup finish with a final-four place in this competition shows the improvement under Southgate was no fluke.
‘It was a difficult period for England in 2014 and 2016,’ Koeman said, ‘but when Southgate took over, he gave possibilities to young players and that had a big impact. If you watch them and look at their squad, it’s full of quality.
‘They have strong players, fast players, a lot of different players who can be selected, and different ways to play. The speed of the improvement is all about that quality, and good organisation of the team. That’s what makes a national team strong and Southgate has done a fantastic job. That was an example for the Dutch, how they processed the squad, gave chances to young players.
‘It’s not by chance they are fourth in the world rankings. They’re a squad who have a chance in the European Championship.’
Raheem Sterling is set to wear the armband and lead the side from the front in Kane’s absence
Jadon Sancho (L), Jesse Lingard (centre) and Marcus Rashford (right) share the load in attack
Not to be overlooked, mind, is that Holland’s development under Koeman has been rapid, too.
When these teams last met, in March 2018, it was Koeman’s first game in charge. England won 1-0 fielding a team that included Kyle Walker at centre half and Kieran Trippier at right back, a tactical tweak that played a part in the turnaround at the World Cup.
England’s improvement is such that Trippier can no longer make the squad, after a poor season for Spurs, but Holland have progressed as well.
‘We were the lesser of the teams then, and England were more advanced,’ Koeman admitted. ‘But we’re closer now. We have a better chance of winning.’
Holland are better, that much is true. Yet so are England. No longer a one-man band, one-trick ponies. No Kane and, Southgate hopes, no problem.