Sessegnon A World Cup Gamble Southgate Should Take

 • by Thomas McIlroy
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Taking a teenager who’s never played a minute of Premier League football to the World Cup is a guaranteed disaster, right? It’s what Sven-Göran Eriksson did with Theo Walcott in 2006 and we all know how that went.

Despite that calamity, however, Gareth Southgate should take a leaf out the Swede’s book and do it again this summer with 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon.

The Fulham star is already one of the best players in the Championship and the signs are he’ll be a Three Lions regular for years to come.

Sessegnon has already attracted interest from, to name a few, the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain.

His talent his undeniable, his potential huge. And to most who watch him, it’s clear Sessegnon will be a future England international. So why not give him a go now?

Before Walcott was called up to the squad, Arsène Wenger said age wasn’t an issue.

“Theo is only 17 years old and it is a big pressure to have – but I would not stop Sven from picking him,” he declared. “When Sven asks me about a player, I always give him my opinion – and I regard Walcott as a big prospect.”

It’s also a decision Eriksson says he doesn’t regret.

“I didn’t feel as though I was putting him under a lot of pressure,” he said back in 2007. “In fact, I am sure about it because I checked that very carefully with those around him.

“I don’t regret taking him to Germany and I don’t think the alternatives to Walcott at the time would have changed anything in the World Cup.”

History has perhaps proven Eriksson made the wrong call but importantly for Sessegnon, he is already a lot further ahead in his career development than Walcott was in 2006.

When the then Arsenal teenager went to the World Cup, he’d made just 21 league appearances. All had for Championship side Southampton, where he’d only been a regular for half a season before his move to the Gunners.

The Fulham youngster, by contrast, has 59 Championship appearances under his belt and has played 67 times for the Whites in all competitions. He’s a first-team regular and has been for two seasons.

Impressively no player in the Fulham squad has been involved in more league games this season than Sessegnon’s 35. He’s also played more minutes in the Championship – 3,126 – than any of his team-mates. His 14 goals are also more than any one else has managed for his side.

So while Walcott was a hot prospect who’d shown glimpses of promise in half a season, Sessegnon has proven himself consistently in the relentless Championship, one of the most competitive divisions in Europe.

His impressive form in 2018, in which he has scored nine league goals, more than any one else in the English second tier, saw him named PFA Championship Player of the Month for January.

Sessegnon became the first 17-year-old to win the award since Gareth Bale, who went onto break the world transfer record when he left Tottenham Hotspur for Real Madrid.

The Los Blancos superstar was given his Wales debut aged 16 back in 2006, and being part of his country’s senior international set-up did him no damage.

Of course, Bale wasn’t involved at a World Cup and the expectation that brings, but there are no signs Sessegnon would fail to deal with that pressure. He’s already proven himself to be far beyond other colleagues in his age group.

While his twin brother Steven was part of the England squad at the Under-17 World Cup last summer, Ryan wasn’t there. That wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough, far from it, but because he was already playing at a higher level.


Sessegnon was with the Under-19 squad who won the European Championships. He finished the tournament as the joint top-scorer despite being younger than the majority of his teammates and opposition players.

Fulham academy director Huw Jennings described Sessegnon as an ‘anomaly’ when talking about youth footballers to GetWestLondon, as very few can deal with the rigours of first-team Championship football every week.

His game has a maturity the belies his tender years. Tellingly, when watching Sessegnon, you don’t feel like you’re seeing a green teenager in action, he appears an experienced and nuanced wideman.

That maturity is something picked up by teammate Neeskens Kebano, who hailed Sessegnon last year, when he was just 16.

“Ryan Sessegnon is going to be the future of English football – he is that good,” he said.

“Sometimes, you forget how young he is. We speak in French, and often when I ask him for his opinion about certain things, I suddenly realise he is too young to answer the question. And when we stay in a hotel the night before a game, he’s not allowed to be alone in a room because he’s under 18 years old.

“But if you only had to judge him by what he does on the field, you would never think he is 16. Is he the best young player I’ve ever seen? Put it this way, I have worked with many, many young players, but he is the most talented for his age.”

Those who work with Sessegnon every day rate him very highly and seem to think his mental approach to the game is strong enough to cope with anything thrown his way – Slaviša Jokanović wouldn’t have started him in both legs of Fulham’s play-off semi-final against Reading last season if he didn’t think so.

So the way he’s dealt with every challenge in his career so far would indicate a World Cup call-up wouldn’t faze him. And for England his versatility would be a useful tool to have in their armour.

He can play at left-back, left wing-back or as an attacking winger, but it’s clear he prefers playing forward. It was where he was moved to for most of January and  also where he starred during the Under-19 Euros.

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“I’m happy to be versatile right now but I play where the gaffer wants me to play,” Sessegnon told the Evening Standard.

“I’m enjoying my position on the left wing because I think I’m affecting the game more in terms of goals and assists. But I’m happy to play wherever I’m told.”

It would be harder for Sessegnon to break into the England squad if he dreamed solely of playing in attack. The likes of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are all ahead of him in the pecking order.

However, other players who’ve been used out wide for England in recent games, such as Nathan Redmond and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, have hardly set the world alight this term and aren’t guaranteed starters for their clubs, something Southgate has previously said is important to him.

So calling up Sessegnon as a left-back or left wing-back could be the answer. Ryan Bertrand aside, the other main options in Danny Rose and Luke Shaw have seen their game time severely limited this season because of injury and José Mourinho respectively.

The Manchester United man may have hit form last month, but he had been out of the picture at Old Trafford for several months and there’s no guarantee Mourinho won’t drop him once again.

Southgate wouldn’t have that fear with Sessegnon, who is arguably the in-form left-sided player in the country.

His attacking nature would make him perfect for Southgate, who whether playing with wing-backs or full-backs, has them pushing forward, something Sessegnon is more than capable of doing well.

Southgate has shown he isn’t afraid to give a chance to either youngsters – Joe Gomez, Lewis Cook, Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke have all got first call ups under the Three Lions boss.

What’s more, he’s not afraid to pick from unfashionable sides either, with Burnley’s Jack Cork making his international debut too.

The bravest step of Southgate’s England managerial career could be calling up Sessegnon for the World Cup.

The Fulham youngster has already proven he’s capable of standing up to every challenge presented to him and he is arguably the most exciting English youngster since Wayne Rooney.

He could learn and thrive in the Three Lions squad among better players and be a surprise breakout star. Taking him to Russia is worth the risk.

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