Saturday marks 100 days until England’s World Cup campaign gets underway against Tunisia in Volgograd.
Despite foreign secretary Boris Johnson briefly appearing to suggest otherwise this week, England are still set to travel to Russia yet there are only nine rounds of Premier League fixtures and just two international friendlies before Gareth Southgate has to name his squad for the tournament.
Unfortunately for the Three Lions manager, who will announce a squad for this month’s friendlies away to Holland and at home to Italy next week, there remains a number of questions over key positions and a rapidly decreasing amount of time in which to answer them. Beyond a handful of names, most of England’s recent call-ups are either out of form or fitness — potentially leaving the door open to some wildcard names making the final 23-man squad.
“I never pick on reputation,” Southgate said last year. “Form has to come into it.” If the England manager rigidly sticks to that maxim, his final World Cup squad could look very different to any he has picked before.
First names on the team sheet
Barring a sudden change of heart, Southgate at least appears to have settled on a 3-4-3 formation. And that means certain players — a No9 capable of holding the line on his own and wing-backs — are guaranteed to be on the plane to Russia as long as they’re still moving come May.
Tottenham’s Harry Kane is set to start for England in the central role up front. On the flanks, Manchester City’s Kyle Walker, Spurs’s Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose and Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand are unlikely to lose the favour they’ve earned with Southgate. Meanwhile, forwards Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy are all likely to travel due to their pedigree and lack of competition.
During the World Cup qualifying campaign, Southgate preferred City’s John Stones, Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Everton’s Will Keane as centre-backs. All three have nosedived in form since last playing for England, with Stones and Cahill both currently occupying their clubs’ subs bench. Liverpool’s versatile Joe Gomez impressed against Neymar in England’s friendly with Brazil last November, but he too has been unable to earn a club appearance since January.
If Southgate is looking for form players, the two outstanding defences outside the top six have been Burnley and Brighton. Burnley have conceded the fewest goals with just 26 and Brighton are next behind with 38. At the heart of their efforts have been Ben Mee and Lewis Dunk respectively.
No Premier League defender has blocked more shots than Dunk’s 48, while his 50 interceptions and 52 tackles are the second most for any centre-back in the league. Mee is behind Dunk on shots blocked and has blocked more crosses than any other English centre-back.
Yet more suited to a back three who will be expected to comfortable on the ball could be Swansea City’s Alfie Mawson who has completed more passes than any other English centre-back in the Premier League this season with 1322.
Centre-midfield is a problem area for England. Expect Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Tottenham’s Eric Dier both to be included as the only two centre-midfielders currently playing regularly for a top six club. Youngsters Harry Winks and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, from Tottenham and Crystal Palace respectively, both worked their way into international contention last autumn but neither has played this calendar year due to injury. Neither Danny Drinkwater nor Ross Barkley have nailed down a starting spot at Chelsea. Even Jake Livermore has started just once for basement club West Brom in their last seven games.
That may lead Southgate to consider Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere for the first time. The one-time great hope for England may no longer set pulses racing to the same speed as he could at 19, but he has steadily worked his way back into the Gunners’ first team this season. His average of 3.6 successful dribbles per 90 minutes in the Premier League is far beyond any other English centre-midfielder this season and suggests he still possesses the drive and dynamism England may need to unlock defences.
For something totally different, though, England could look to Brighton’s Dale Stephens who has appeared in every minute of the Seagulls’ successful first season in the Premier League and could be a useful tool should England look to contain teams. He has completed more accurate passes than any other English midfielder this season, more tackles and more interceptions.