England manager Gareth Southgate joked he commits a crime with every team selection given the strength in depth of a squad edging closer to World Cup qualification.
A mammoth year for the Three Lions rolls onto a 17th game of 2021 on Tuesday evening as the road to Qatar continues with a Wembley clash against Hungary.
Southgate’s side remain unbeaten seven matches into Group I and it remains a case of when rather than if they qualify for the World Cup, with a play-off spot assured if they follow up the win in Andorra by beating Hungary.
Phil Foden shone in the 5-0 Pyrenees cakewalk and has been praised to the hilt since, yet such is the quality at Southgate’s disposal he is not a shoo-in for a starting role on Tuesday.
“I have a headache and I commit a crime every time I pick a team,” the England boss said, having brought in man-of-the-match Foden among 10 changes in Andorra.
“It’s very difficult every time you have to name a squad because we have so many good players and such good, strong competition for places.
“Of course there was lots of players that did their own confidence and their own reputations the world of good the other day and that’s pleasing to see.
“We will definitely make changes (against Hungary). We’ve got a very strong squad.”
Southgate underlined his delight with the group’s attitude as much as aptitude, meaning they are hitting consistent performances against all manner of sides after reaching the Euro 2020 final.
“We can’t be a team that has a day off,” he said. “We want to keep the consistency of performances. We’ve done that this calendar year.
“Everybody knows they can’t afford to have a day off. We have that competition for places.
“There was a desire to go again after the summer, go the next step – a hunger to keep improving, an edge to training. I think that’s healthy. We’ve got to keep that atmosphere as it is now.”
Among those setting the tone and preparing to return the side on Tuesday is skipper Harry Kane, who has yet to score a Premier League goal for Tottenham this term but has netted nine in 13 appearances for England in 2021.
“You only have to look at that goals record, and the importance those goals have been to us over the five years we’ve been working,” Southgate said.
“When you put the comparable with the five or six other players at the top of that scoring chart, and you look at those names, it’s a reminder of how much Harry has already achieved at a personal level.
“And I know what’s been more important to him – it’s the team getting to two semi-finals and a final.
“Without a doubt, he’s a player who has to keep proving himself, I think he knows that.
“I think he relishes that and we know that when those chances fall, you’ve got huge faith they’re going to hit the back of the net, such is his technical ability and his mentality and calmness when those chances come.”
Kane is fifth in England’s all-time scoring list and a hat-trick against Hungary would see him move joint fourth with the late Jimmy Greaves, who will be remembered alongside fellow 1966 World Cup winner Roger Hunt on Tuesday.
England will pay tribute to the two greats on a night when their pre-match show of solidarity in the push for equality is as important as ever given the racist abuse that marred last month’s meeting in Hungary.
“I don’t think there’s a lot to add on what we’ve said in the past on racism and tolerance for each other,” Southgate said.
“I don’t think there’s anything relevant in that for (Tuesday’s) game.”
Southgate’s full focus is on qualifying for Qatar rather than what happens after the tournament.
The 51-year-old is out of contract after the World Cup and Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham spoke during the summer of his desire for the manager to extend his deal.
Southgate does not want to outstay his welcome and last month laughed off suggestions that England’s players might be distracted by his contract situation.
“I think I said last month that I’d asked to put that further back into the autumn, really, because I just wanted to focus on these games,” he said when asked for an update ahead of the Hungary game.
“And also to give myself the time to make the right decision because I’m conscious after the Euros there’s a huge amount of emotional feel and fatigue from going through a tournament like that.
“I want to make sure that I’m making the right decisions for the right reasons and we’ve happily parked that for the time being.
“But the discussions are very much open and I know Mark’s been really, really supportive, which has been hugely appreciated by myself.
“I have really felt getting the team to the World Cup was the priority. We can look at everything in the next few weeks.”