Ross Barkley

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

Kane, Sterling star as England rout Bulgaria

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On a night where racist abuse from the stands in Bulgaria marred the overall spectacle, England’s players produced an incredible result and spectacle for the visiting fans, with all things considered.

Harry Kane scored once and assisted on three others as England rolled over Bulgaria, winning 6-0 on Monday evening in the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia, Bulgaria. Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley both scored a brace for the Three Lions and Marcus Rashford’s thunderbolt from a tight angle gave England the opening goal it needed.

[READ: USMNT looks to build from win v. Canada]

The blowout result was the perfect response after England had suffered its first loss in qualifying for a decade, losing on Friday, 2-1 at the Czech Republic. The six goals England put past Bulgaria was also the fourth time out of six games that England had scored at least five goals in a match. The only other time, aside from the defeat, was a 4-0 win last month at Wembley Stadium over Bulgaria.

It took just seven minutes for England to get on the board. Barkley found Rashford down the left wing, and after turning a defender with a cross-fake, Rashford cut back from goal and whipped a strike that flashed past Bulgarian goalkeeper Plaman Iliev and in for a goal.

Kane, who has earned some criticism for not scoring as much recently as in the past, showed he was more than a goal-scoring No. 9. Combining with Raheem Sterling like he did so well at the 2018 World Cup, Kane in the 20th minute played a great pass into Sterling’s feet in the box. The Manchester City winger did the rest, crossing to a wide-open Barkley at the back post for a tap-in.

Kane again played provider in the 32nd minute, floating to the right and delivering an-inch perfect cross right to the penalty spot with his left foot. Barkley was there to meet it with a glancing header to score and put the game to rest.

Despite dealing with horrendous racist abuse from the crowd and two pauses in the game, England continued to attack and were rewarded when Kane set up Sterling for another tap-in moments before the halftime break.

Kane and Sterling connected again for another goal before in the 85th minute, Kane finally got his finish to send Bulgaria packing.

Considering the events in the stadium, it’s a triumphant win for England. However, they still must win at least one more game before automatic qualification to Euro 2020 is assured, as Kosovo beat Montenegro, 2-0 on Monday as well to stay within touching distance of England and the Czech Republic.

England struck by poor club form in qualifying blip

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What do you do as a national team manager when the best players in your group are struggling at the club level?

That’s the issue currently facing Gareth Southgate, and it’s spilled over into Euro 2020 qualification as England fell to the Czech Republic 2-1 on Friday, its first Euro qualifying defeat in ten years.

While its obvious England has a massive talent imbalance between offense and defense, the poor form plague has also struck, leaving Southgate with a host of difficult choices both up front and at the back. It has become such a pestilence that Southgate was left with no choice but to admit it after the match.

“In terms of the players, I think there are players who are not playing well for their clubs, but that is the situation we are in at the moment, certainly in a couple of positions,” admitted Southgate in the post-match press conference. “We collectively have to accept the result, but of course, as the manager, then I have got to accept that as well, absolutely.”

The England boss has some serious pondering to do up and down the pitch. Marcus Rashford has become a problem for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the suddenly stagnant Manchester United attack, and he gave way in the England starting lineup to young Jadon Sancho, who was unable to lift England on the day. In midfield, a now-broken Dele Alli was a guaranteed starter at the World Cup two years ago but was left out entirely this international break as Tottenham continues to flounder, while fellow Spur Harry Winks was relegated to the bench. Harry Maguire in defense has begun his Red Devils career well, but beside him was Michael Keane who has been downright poor at Everton thus far. Ross Barkley has lost his place at Chelsea and was left among the substitutes in Prague as well in favor of the in-form teammate Mason Mount, but with England misfiring Barkley was unable to change the tide off the bench.

The problem for Southgate is two-fold, and he’s damned no matter what. In the case of players like Alli, Rashford, and Winks, the England boss chose to replace them with less experienced players, which clearly upset the balance and cohesion within the squad. Yet he chose to stick with Keane, who has started every Euro qualifier thus far, in favor of a younger Joe Gomez and that backfired as well, as Keane toiled ineffectively in Prague. Gomez himself has lost his place at Liverpool to Joel Matip, and would have been another questionable option.

Injuries also played their part no doubt. Key players in Aaron Wan-Bissaka, John Stones, and James Maddison were axed due to injuries or illness, while Callum Hudson-Odoi was not selected as he recently returned from a long-term problem himself. Still, Wan-Bissaka’s absence left Southgate with no choice but to select a replacement, choosing Kieran Trippier on the edge of the back line, who has seen an up-and-down start to his Atletico Madrid career. Even Stones had dipped in form at Manchester City, falling completely out of the matchday squad in favor of Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi before succumbing to an unspecified muscle injury.

These problems caused issues tactically for a squad that suddenly had to deal with a deviation from the norm. Southgate deployed a 4-2-3-1 with Mount in the central creative role, but according to Yahoo’s Kieran Canning, the national team has not played in such a formation in two years. Southgate mentioned multiple times in his post-match press conference how displeased he was with England’s off-ball structure and movement, a direct product of mixing and matching. “We tried something [in the second half] to make ourselves a bit more solid without the ball, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “We didn’t look any more solid, and we were poor at using the ball in the first half. That said, at 1-1, at half time, we were able to change that. I think we were better in the second half and we created chances to win the game.”

To make matters worse, the few players in good club form didn’t live up to standards on the international stage. Declan Rice, maybe West Ham’s best player so far this season, was miserable in a pivot with Jordan Henderson and hauled off in the second half. The Mirror says between the midfield pair, they made just one successful tackle through the entire match and completed just 11 passes in the opening 20 minutes of the game. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has been one of many fantastic Liverpool players this season, was bafflingly left on the bench in favor of Trippier.

The issues facing Southgate are a stark reminder how long two years truly is. This England squad felt far more solid and secure with depth as it reached the semifinals of the World Cup just two year ago. Now, there are glaring holes and numerous questions at a host of different positions. With the starters floundering in Prague, Southgate’s choices off the bench have thinned considerably, and Rashford’s injection of quality off the bench two years ago in Russia 2018 is no longer to be found as he came on with 17 minutes to go on Friday. The rock solid World Cup back-three of Stones, Maguire, and Kyle Walker is nowhere to be found despite the presence of all three in the setup.

Little has changed personnel wise for England, and yet two years on after a promising World Cup run with a host of players in their prime, the squad now feels in flux again as key individuals are forced to fight for their places. Gareth Southgate does not sit in an envious position, looking for answers while keeping faith in some key squad members while making necessary changes elsewhere hoping not to upset the squad chemistry. A visit to Bulgaria on Monday represents a quick turnaround between two road matches, an opportunity to right the ship amid the necessary distraction of travel. Anything less than a convincing performance will allow lingering questions to fester for another month, plenty of time for the sudden dysfunction to become even more chronic.

Chelsea youngster Mason Mount set for first England start

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According to a number of reports from England, young Chelsea talent Mason Mount is readying for his first international start as England gets set to face the Czech Republic in Euro 2020 qualification on Friday.

Mount has two international caps to his name, having come off the bench against Bulgaria and Kosovo in the last international break. He will now make his full debut, a well-earned reward for a stellar Premier League season thus far. The 20-year-old has scored four goals and assisted another through the first eight games of the season and has been one of the most positive attacking influences at Stanford Bridge alongside fellow academy graduate Tammy Abraham.

“Nothing I’ve seen surprises me at all,” England manager Gareth Southgate said of Mount’s play during his pre-match press conference on Thursday. “We’ve had him marked as a player from the first time I saw him at St. George’s [Park]. Chelsea would be the same on that, I think, but of course he’s now been able to have the opportunity to play in the Premier League and display that against top teams. I think you saw his penalty in the Super Cup, [that] was a nice cameo of what he’s about, really.”

Mount is the beneficiary of the withdrawal of James Maddison, who departed the England squad due to an illness, still unable to make his international debut. He will start ahead of Chelsea teammate Ross Barkley, whom Mount has supplanted as the starting attacking midfielder at Stamford Bridge. “I don’t think it matters what our starting three is [in attack],” Southgate said at the press conference while discussing the importance of having depth. “Clearly, at the moment Raheem [Sterling] and Harry [Kane], their numbers are incredible and the consistency of their performance is, but the rest can be down to performance at any given time.”

Mount’s 7.40 WhoScored rating so far through the first eight games of the Premier League season puts him in the top 20 of players in the league and third among English talents behind Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and his Blues teammate Abraham. His 2.1 key passes per game ranks 13th in the league behind high-volume players like Kevin De Bruyne, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Jack Grealish.

The 20-year-old is set to start alongside fellow youngster Jadon Sancho who is reportedly readying for another spot in the lineup after scoring a brace against Kosovo his last time out to mark his first international goals. Sancho also started against the Czech Republic in the reverse fixture back in March, a 5-0 rout that saw him assist Sterling’s 24th minute opener.

Lampard: Hard work, not price tag, will change Pulisic’s lack of playing time

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Christian Pulisic remains a talking point in London for undesirable reasons.

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Yet again, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard was asked about Christian Pulisic’s lack of playing time. Yet again, the 41-year-old let it be known that the American – like some of his teammates – is going to have to “show” in training or on the field that he is “worthy” of playing time, adding that his lucrative price tag alone doesn’t guarantee him anything.

“One of my problems in this job is that I have good players and everyone has their story – Christian has a price-tag, Ross Barkley is an international player, so too is Mason Mount,” Lampard said ahead of Sunday’s game against Southampton. “Callum Hudson-Odoi has just signed a new contract, Bayern Munich wanted to buy him, he is an international player, Ruben Loftus-Cheek will come back and be an international player… and I can’t pick them all in the game, unfortunately.”

“All I have to demand of them is that they show me in training or show me in the game, when they get the chances to play, that they are worthy of their place,” he added.

After featuring in Chelsea’s first five games of the season, the 21-year-old has yet to take the field in Premier League play since late August. Midweek, he was omitted from Lampard’s 18-man Champions League list. Throughout the dry spell, Pulisic has only seen playing time in League Cup play, specifically 90 minutes in the Blue’s 7-1 rout of Grimsby Town in which he contributed an assist.

But only days later, following the Blue’s 2-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion, Pulisic, himself, admitted to ProSoccerTalk’s own Joe Prince-Wright that his lack of playing time was “very frustrating.”

To many, if Pulisic fails to gain minutes at this pace, the conundrum between him and Lampard will continue to worsen.

The Chelsea boss, accounting for Pulisic’s age, recent arrival to England, assimilation to the league, sees the American’s lack of playing time with a different lens. If anything, the winger’s five appearances thus far should be seen as a positive.

“I spoke to Christian two days before the Grimsby game and was very clear about the standards,” Lampard admitted. “And we have to give him the fact he has moved country, leagues and is as young as all the young players we are talking about.”

“He has just turned 21,” he added. “So if anyone is getting too excited about this, they should calm down, frankly, because he has already started five games for us.”

If Pulisic has any hopes of getting a grip on playing time, he’s going to need to do two things: put in hard work and follow Callum Hudson-Odoi’s footsteps, who Lampard praised for responding to criticism positively.

“What he needs to do is work daily, and work to show within the group that he deserves to play – as all the players do,” the Chelsea legend said.

“I’ve been really pleased with Callum’s response to criticism and that has to continue,” he added. “We can all focus on Pulisic, but Callum’s the same. I have to speak in the real world when I speak to them.”

Until then, it’s unlikely Pulisic’s undesirable situation at Stamford Bridge will end, despite his price tag.