Gareth Southgate has insisted that he is willing to stake his “reputation” by continuing to select Manchester United centre-half Harry Maguire.
Maguire has lost his place in the starting side since the arrival of Erik ten Hag at Old Trafford, but was called up to the England squad for two Nations League fixtures this month.
The 29-year-old has been a key part of Southgate’s England side during deep major tournament runs at both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020, but has been heavily criticised for his club performances.
Ahead of an encounter with Italy in Milan on Friday, Southgate was certain that Maguire remained one of England’s “best” and “most important” players – though admitted his current place outside of Ten Hag’s first-choice Manchester United eleven was a matter of concern.
“Whatever reputation I have I’m putting it on there,” Southgate said of a player nearing 50 international caps. “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 team.”
Southgate gave Maguire his debut in a 1-0 win against Lithuania in October 2017, and the former Leicester and Hull player has since surpassed John Terry and Jack Charlton as England’s highest scoring male defender.
England have a varied group of centre-half options in a 28-player squad named to take on Italy and Germany, including the recalled Eric Dier.
Maguire and John Stones appear to remain near the top of the centre-half pecking order, however, with their manager noting the pair’s ability with the ball at their feet as a fit for the way England wish to play.
Southgate explained: “If we thought there were experienced players ready to step in and play at a level above [Harry Maguire] there would be a different consideration and in some positions there would be a different level of competition in that way. He is our most dominant aerial centre-back.
“Him and John [Stones] 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 are bottom of Nations League Group A3 with two draws and two defeats from their first four games.
A win over Italy at San Siro would move Southgate’s side level on points with their opponents before England host Germany at Wembley on Monday.