With an abject lack of football worth talking about this week, I’ve decided to revisit an article I wrote in November last year. That too was a blackhole of discussion points, so I resorted to picking what I thought England’s 23 would be if the World Cup was around the corner. Here we are 4 months down the line, approximately 2 months before Gareth picks our 23 to win the World Cup. Or crash out in the group stages – it’s up in the air.
Before I go further, I think it’s important to realise what Southgate is up to here. He’s an unfashionable choice as manager and I have been guilty on occasion of dismissing his decisions as boneheaded. But what was clear from Friday’s friendly with Holland is that there is a clear plan in place and what is particularly refreshing is that those who don’t measure up are simply not included. Chris Smalling, for example, has not been picked because he is not deemed technically proficient enough on the ball. His inclusion would scupper England’s plan to play out from the back, or at least undermine it. On the other hand, all 10 of England’s starting outfield players on Friday heralded from five Champions League playing clubs, though whether this was a ploy ahead of a mass rotation on Tuesday against Italy remains to be seen. So then, who is heading to Russia?
Nick Pope’s inclusion in the squad for these friendlies was deserved but I would be surprised if he got the nod for the final squad. That said it is very hard to justify Joe Hart‘s inclusion on this season’s form alone but I just can’t see Southgate taking three inexperienced keepers. Jordan Pickford started Friday’s friendly and looked mostly accomplished, especially with his feet with the exception of one rushed clearance towards the end. Jack Butland will presumably get his turn on Tuesday. Outside of these 4, I don’t think there is much competition at this moment in time.
Southgate threw a curveball on Friday by lining up Kyle Walker as a right-sided centre-half, a decision I baulked at, at the time but have now come to realise it is an option. In games where the opposition park the metaphorical bus, having a centre-half willing and able to step out with the ball and join in the attacking moves can make all the difference. Few people would complain at Kieran Trippier‘s inclusion in the starting 11 so the more options the better. Danny Rose hasn’t played as much football as he would have liked this season but he is comfortably our best option for the left back/wing back role. I think John Stones and Phil Jones are both certainties to go if fit and Harry Maguire has played himself into the squad. That leaves two spaces in my opinion – a back up for the left-sided role and a versatile centre-half. Joe Gomez started the Holland game but had to depart early with injury, but is it telling that he started? He can play all across the back four and that may make him a useful squad player. Ryan Bertrand must go as an alternative to Danny Rose, Ashley Young is an option too though. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling will hope to fight their way back into the squad, though James Tarkowski and Alfie Mawson got the nod ahead of them which would at least imply Southgate is on the lookout for another centre-half option, the Italy friendly will be huge for these two if they can get on the pitch.
Competition is hotting up for the midfield places, though in my opinion, it remains one of the weaker parts of the England squad. Eric Dier wasn’t included in the starting lineup on Friday but his versatility as a central midfield and centre-half option makes him a certainty for the squad. It would also be a huge surprise if Jordan Henderson didn’t make the final cut having captained the side on Friday, even if he and Dier may find themselves fighting for one spot in that midfield come June. Dele Alli has had a fairly average season by his high standards but again, I don’t doubt he will be in the squad along with Jesse Lingard who has come from nowhere 4 months ago with a good run of form that culminated with him scoring the winner on Friday night. Another player who took his opportunity is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is now playing regularly at club level and has justifiably found himself in the mix to start for his nation, so making the squad should be a certainty. From here though, the debate rages on. Jack Wilshere must surely be seen as a fitness risk having already been ruled out of Tuesday’s game – he lacks the athleticism of some of his competition and might not fit the game plan anyway, though I’d argue when he’s on form you make him your game plan. Adam Lallana had become a key part of the England and Liverpool team but injuries have restricted his game time this season. It’s hard to see him playing enough this season to make an impression so it will depend on whether Southgate seems him as having enough credit in the bank already. Harry Winks looked to have played his way in but has also suffered with injuries, whilst Lewis Cook is surely too inexperienced. Jake Livermore is a favourite of Southgate’s and despite a questionable run of form at club level may find himself included by default.
This is one of the less difficult areas of the pitch to predict. Harry Kane will go and possibly captain the side if fit, Raheem Sterling has had a tremendous season and can be used in either midfield or attack, Jamie Vardy will always be an option and Marcus Rashford is too exciting a prospect to leave behind. Rashford and Sterling started the game on Friday and whilst I’ll be surprised if that’s the way of things come the Tunisia game, it shows we actually have some reasonable options. Due to a lack of alternatives, Danny Welbeck may find himself in the squad by default as an extra striking option. He has a good record for England and still made the squad this time despite his club form being poor at best.
I make that 22, with the last spot between Ashley Young, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere and one of the many centre-half options depending on which way Southgate wants to go. Let’s see how far wrong I am when the squad is announced in May!