Gareth Southgate is keeping the faith with Joe Hart as England’s number one, insisting he remains the best goalkeeper in the country.
Speaking ahead of Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Malta, Southgate declined to offer details of his outfield selections or chosen captain but made a point of confirming Hart would retain the gloves at the Ta’Qali National Stadium.
The 30-year-old has endured a rocky start to his season-long loan at West Ham, conceding 10 goals in his first three matches, and the competition from Jack Butland, Tom Heaton and Jordan Pickford is only getting stronger.
But Southgate was clear that the status quo has yet to be overturned, with Hart’s record of conceding just twice in six qualifiers counting in his favour.
“Joe will start for us. I think he’s our best goalkeeper at the moment,” he said.
“I wanted to see how he would respond because he has had a difficult start to the season with his club but I’m pleased he’s in a good frame of mind. Joe has trained really well.
“His performances since I’ve been manager have been very, very good, he’s only conceded two goals in Scotland in this qualifying campaign.”
While Southgate was emphatic in standing up for Hart, he gave just enough hope to the challengers that it was not a lost cause before next summer’s World Cup.
“We’re only three matches into the start of the season, so I don’t feel as though the others have had time to stake a claim to push Joe out of that position,” he explained.
“But we’ve got three excellent goalkeepers here, there’s Jordan who was with us (before withdrawing through injury), and Fraser Forster, who is very unfortunate not to be in the squad.
“I’m fascinated to see how they all get on over the next few months.”
Hart is one of five players to have worn the skipper’s armband during Southgate’s eight games at the helm – alongside Wayne Rooney, Jordan Henderson, Gary Cahill and Harry Kane.
Rooney was the last permanent captain before losing his place in Southgate’s plans and his retirement last week has reinvigorated the question about a long-term successor.
As a player Southgate led every one of his club sides but remains convinced the most pressing need is to empower the group, rather than elevate one individual.
“I’m keen to keep sharing the leadership,” he said.
“We’ve focused too much on Wayne in particular these last few years and we’ve got to start building up a more resilient group of leaders to take responsibility.
“For me it’s not my most important decision, more important is trying to build the group into a stronger group that reacts in the right way collectively to pressure moments in the game.
“By putting one person forward to do that I don’t think we’re going to build that as a team.”
It was against the Maltese that Southgate took charge of England for the first time, then on an interim basis following the messy departure of Sam Allardyce.
He presided over a scrappy 2-0 victory at Wembley, though the extenuating circumstances could be taken as mitigation against a side now ranked 190th in the world.
Better will be expected this time but Southgate stressed his reign is still in a relatively formative phase.
“We’ve had about 25 days with the players since I became permanent manager, which would be about 16 or 17 training sessions across a period of eight months,” he added.
“It’s not easy to bring an instant change, it’s going to take time to put some things in place. But I feel the players are a lot clearer about the direction we want to go.”
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