As we enter the home stretch of league football leading into the World Cup, the recently concluded international break produced a few results that are cause for concern for contenders and pretenders alike. Expected semi-finalists such as Brazil looked on song without Neymar, dispatching an albeit understrength Germany at home, the reigning world champions’ first loss on home soil since 2006. France won their second fixture but showed their weakness in central midfield when they let a two goal lead slip to Colombia who ran out 3-2 winners. Then after the Spaniards and the Germans cancelled each other out in a 1-1 draw, La Roja ran riot over a mismatched and ‘Messiless’ Argentina team who were embarrassed 6-1.
Surprising absentees from this summer’s tournament the Netherlands and Italy were also involved as they continue to rebuild. The Dutch lost at home to 1-0 to England and were very much outplayed. They then went on to shock Portugal 3-0. The Italians were shot down 2-0 by Argentina but somehow managed to comeback from 1-0 down thanks to an 87th minute VAR aided penalty decision against England.
Building from the Back
The position of goalkeeper seems to be a poisoned chalice for England in major tournaments. If we are to go by the recent squad, the front runners are the last two former England U21 goalies in Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford. Against the Dutch, the distribution of Pickford should give him the edge against Butland, who is in a relegation struggle with Stoke City. Mainstay Joe Hart’s best hope is to have a good end of season with West Ham and make the squad as third choice, as he did in 2010. Given he has the tournament experience; it would be argued in some quarters that this would be the common sense choice over uncapped Nick Pope, especially given the fact that the two ahead of him have limited international experience.
Gareth Southgate has stuck to his guns that he will play out from the back and use a back three going into the World Cup. His philosophy has seen Manchester United ever-present Chris Smalling missing out on squads because of his inability to play out from the back comfortably. Instead, preferring Manchester City’s John Stones to play at the centre of the back three. There was also the shock decision to use Kyle Walker as a right-sided centre back as Southgate looks to tap into the chemistry he and the former Everton man would have from their pace-setting season with City. He was named Man of the Match versus the Italians playing that role. Another full back that the manager seems to fancy is Joe Gomez, whose long term position is thought to be centre half. He got injured after ten minutes and was replaced by the best ball playing defender in the country, Harry Maguire. Once fit and he gets a decent end of season run for his club, one would expect Gomez to make the final squad.
Chelsea captain and England veteran Gary Cahill seems to have been phased out and barring injuries, should miss out. And at 32, this should signal the end of his international career. Phil Jones should be an inclusion once he is fit, something he has trouble doing. Southgate seems to like versatile players, and one player he has indicated he would like to see in his back three is Eric Dier. It’s curious that most of his coaches see him as a centre back however the Dier himself thinks he’s better in midfield.
Recent debutant James Tarkowski may miss out. He had a nervous debut against Italy and was unfortunate to give away the penalty. If Southgate is so inclined to use full backs in his back three and leave out a few veterans, this could open the door for young teenage upstarts Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ryan Sessegnon to be included in the 30 man provisional squad at the very least. Both players were recently promoted to the U21 England team.
England has a raft of players to choose from for the midfield positions, especially the attacking roles. Players such as Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana if fit should be automatic picks. The deeper midfield roles should be giving Southgate headache, given that a player of the caliber or lack thereof by the name of Jake Livermore is an ever present in his squad. Given that he didn’t play in the last two recent international fixtures, England fans would be crossing their fingers this means he’s way down on the totem pole where May squad selection is concerned.
A player of the caliber of Jack Wilshere, who was called to the last squad but was sent back to his club due to a training injury should be a sure pick if he can stay away from the treatment table. Luckily for him, he was able to rebound and start in his club’s next league game against Stoke City last weekend. Gareth Southgate has a few young upstarts he’s eyeing that could get in over the Arsenal man if his fitness remains a concern. A fit again Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was Man of The Match on debut against Germany, a player who he worked with at the U21 level and seems to rate highly should be a serious contender. Another player is recent debutant and World Cup winning U20 England captain Lewis Cook. A few months ago Harry Winks seemed a sure pick, but an ankle injury may prevent the Tottenham youngster from boarding the plane to Russia. Like Wilshere, both Cook and Winks are good in deep areas as it relates to recycling the ball to the attacking outlets and helping to dictate the tempo of game. Loftus-Cheek is highly skilled at take-ons, his massive frame also gives him an advantage in keeping off defenders as he glides past.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson may be one of, if not the least skilled player for his club and country. But what he lacks in skills he makes up for in dedication, determination, grit and a high work rate. If Southgate decides to start Dier in central midfield, it would be foolhardy to start Henderson alongside him as this would devoid their midfield of creativity coming from deep areas. A player that seems sure to miss out is attacking midfielder Ross Barkley. The former Everton, now Chelsea man was in the last World Cup squad but is perpetually injured. At age 24, he still has a future ahead of him and will hope to regain his place in years to come.
The attacking areas should be a bit more straightforward. It seems Southgate will go in with three strikers for his final squad. Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford should be automatic picks to support the world class Harry Kane who recently returned from an ankle injury ahead of schedule . Rashford is struggling under Jose Mourinho’s system and continues to be played out of position at Manchester United as a wide man. Luckily Southgate still remembers he is a striker, as he was deployed in that role against Netherlands where he performed admirably. Vardy is currently chasing his second twenty plus goals season in the league. A player whose chief asset is pace, he is seen as a one trick pony, but when his closest serious competition in terms of international experience is Danny Welbeck, well then, there isn’t much to fear for Vardy. Despite the Arsenal man having a decent international record, the further Welbeck is from the final squad, the better England’s chances.
In the event of an injury to one of the three front runners, the England coach would be better served selecting one of Tammy Abraham or Dominic Solanke. Both youngsters are products of the Chelsea academy, have done immensely at all youth levels and are now getting their feet wet at the club level. They are seen as two future stars and their potential were rewarded when they both made their international debut last November. Since then, both have clearly expressed that they hope to compete for England this summer. Both have Nigerian root, especially Tammy, whose dad is friends with the President of Nigeria Football Federation Amaju Pinnick. He initially snubbed their request to represent them, but the Super Eagles still hope to have the England youth player on their World Cup roster come summer.
The English FA has already declared that Southgate and this current England squad is a work in progress. They have gone on the record to state that whatever happens at the World Cup, he will keep his job and be the man responsible for ushering in the future England players, especially the U17 and U20 World Cup winners. Realistically, they are expected to leave their group and challenge for a quarter-finals spot. Anything else, even quarter-finals, would be seen as exceeding expectations. This tournament is seen as one too soon in the sense of England being a major challenger for the World Cup. The expectation is for the youth brigade, more of who are making it into their clubs in the BPL and are matriculating through the ranks together, to break into the senior squad and dominate. The future is right around the corner and this remains to be seen as football can sometimes be an unpredictable sport.