Gareth Southgate is ready to stake his reputation on the continued selection of Harry Maguire, insisting the out-of-favour Manchester United defender remains one of England’s most important players.
Maguire has been dropped to the bench for United’s run of four consecutive Premier League victories, having started their back-to-back defeats to open the campaign last month.
The defender has only started one of United’s past five games in all competitions – a 1-0 Europa League loss to Real Sociedad – leading to criticism of Southgate’s decision to call him up for England’s remaining Nations League fixtures.
But speaking ahead of England’s meeting with Italy at San Siro, which is followed by the visit of Germany on Monday, Southgate insisted Maguire remains central to his plans.
“Whatever reputation I have I’m putting it on there,” Southgate said. “I think you always have to back your judgement, and we feel he is an important player.
“Clearly, it’s not an ideal situation. You want your best players playing regularly so that they’re physically in a good place and mentally in a good place.
“But he is an important player for us. I think it’s important to back our best players.
“I haven’t felt the need to speak to him any differently to the rest of the players. Look, he understands that he’s at a big club, big transfer fee and captain of the club so I think that’s why the spotlight has been on him more.
“But he’s focused on training well every day and getting himself back in the [United] team.”
While Southgate acknowledges a lack of alternatives contributed to his decision to stand by Maguire, he also highlighted the ball-playing ability of the defender and his partner John Stones.
“If we thought there were experienced players ready to step in and play at a level above, there would be a different consideration and in some positions there would be a different level of competition in that way,” Southgate said. “He is our most dominant aerial centre-back.
“Him and John are incredible with the ball really – the amount of pressure they have taken for the team in tournaments we have played because we don’t always have that midfield pivot player who can progress the game.
“It means there is a huge amount of pressure on our centre-backs to use the ball well and those two are as good as any in world football at doing that.”
England have only lost two of their past 26 matches, both against Hungary in June’s Nations League fixtures (W18 D6).
However, the Three Lions are also winless in their past four games (D2 L2), their longest such run since June 2014 (five), and a defeat to Italy in Milan would condemn Southgate’s side to relegation from the Nations League’s top tier.