Gareth Southgate’s 23-man squad to travel to Russia to play in the 2018 World Cup is now decided, but for the game against Tunisia on June 18 the England boss can only pick 11 men.
The Three Lions start their preparations when they face Nigeria in an international friendly at Wembley on Saturday, before welcoming Costa Rica to Elland Road five days later.
The friendlies have been arranged taking into account England’s Group G opponents, with Nigeria from the same continent as Tunisia and Costa Rica bordering Panama, who England play in their second group game.
Nigeria drew 1-1 with Tunisia when the two sides met at the African Cup of Nations in 2016. Costa Rica and Panama played out a goalless draw in qualification for the World Cup, while the latter won the corresponding fixture 2-1, scoring a late goal to seal their passport to Russia at the expense of the United States.
England picked up a win and a draw in March’s friendlies against two unqualified nations: the Netherlands and Italy, with the World Cup game against Roberto Martinez’s Belgium in mind.
Southgate has experimented with his squad and formation since qualification was sealed in early October following a 1-0 win over Slovenia, but who will be in and who will be out of England’s starting line-up for the all-important game against Tunisia?
It certainly looks the case that Southgate has his heart set on playing three at the back and the deployment of wing-backs. A big reason for this is his assistant manager Steve Holland, former assistant of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte at Chelsea.
Everyone is looking at the influence of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp as being instrumental in the way England will choose to play, but Holland will bring with him the ideas of Mourinho and Conte – particularly the latter.
As assistant manager in Chelsea’s two title wins of 2015 and 2017 as well as the Blues’ iconic 2012 Champions League triumph, Holland has been involved in some big games as a number two and his input will certainly be valuable for England.
Holland came in as Southgate’s right-hand man after the 2016/17 season had finished, and it’s no secret that his arrival marked a transformation as England began experimenting with three at the back – a system which won Chelsea the 2016/17 Premier League title.
It appears that England are trying to combine Guardiola’s tiki-taka, Klopp and Pochettino’s high press along with the defensive guile of Conte and Mourinho.
It all seems too much too soon, but could some of Europe’s most decorated coaches at club level play a part in a successful tournament for England this summer?
The switch to a back three may seem naïve. England’s national team have never played with such a formation, but in the five games they have played since they confirmed qualification, Southgate’s men have been organised in a way they will most likely be organised at the World Cup.
Jesse Lingard’s winning goal in Amsterdam in March’s friendly was a beautiful team goal, a move which was started by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford who demonstrated his technical ability by coming out of his goal and taking a touch before passing the ball to John Stones.
Everton’s player of the season looks set to be the man to play between the sticks. Despite irregular game time for City this season, Stones appears to fit Southgate’s profile of playing in the centre of a back three.
Stones’ teammate Kyle Walker will be another guaranteed pick. One of the most improved players in the Premier League over the past three years, Walker has developed his game significantly first under Pochettino then Guardiola.
It may have been the case 12 months ago that Walker would have been used as a wing-back in this current system England, but his defensive capabilities under Guardiola and the fact he impressed on the right of a defensive triumvirate against the Netherlands and Italy make him suitable for that same role at the World Cup.
Walker and Stones will occupy the Barzagli–Bonucci roles in defence, with one of Harry Maguire or Gary Cahill filling the void to the left which Chiellini plays so expertly for Juventus and Italy.
That leaves England with four capable wing-backs to provide the width, all of whom have demonstrated their ability for their club sides over the past two seasons – Spurs pair Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose, the experienced Ashley Young and the youthful Trent Alexander-Arnold. It seems as though the former pair will get the nod.
LACK OF OPTIONS
In midfield, Southgate is short of options. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson or Spurs’ Eric Dier will be the midfield anchor, and were it not for the unfortunate injury of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain he would have probably partnered one of them.
Nevertheless, the World Cup will provide the chance for the versatile Fabian Delph or the raw talent of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to stake a claim.
As for the forward positions, two look a certainty. With 64 goals between them in 2017/18 for their clubs, captain Harry Kane and the rejuvenated Raheem Sterling will provide England’s attacking flair.
In support of them, the most ideal choice would be Lingard in favour of Dele Alli to provide a link between the midfielders and Sterling and Kane.
The pace of Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy and Danny Welbeck will be useful from the bench.
Image courtesy of Hayters TV via YouTube, with thanks.