Whatever you think about this year’s FIFA men’s World Cup in Qatar? There’s now just little more than a month to go until England jet off to the middle east and set target on bringing home the little gold trophy, for the first time since 1966.
Personally, I can’t get excited by it… I wouldn’t care so much if England don’t make it out of the group stages… It just doesn’t feel right? Not that the location bothers me or that the human rights issues have a big say on my own personal opinion on where the competition should or should not be staged (who am I to preach to the world on how they do things? Gold Rolex you say? Yes please…), but bloody November? I actually had tickets to England v USA but had to scrap them off the back of not being able to find an affordable hotel. Tents fetching £250 a night, Nothing coming up on Booking.com, Cruise ships being brought in to cater the fan demand last minute… They even changed the day of the first match only last month, It all just seems pathetically organised.
But England whether we care or not, have a competition to win, and after recent form, it might go one way or another for a manager who’s loving relationship with his fans, is starting to turn sour.
The recent UEFA Nations League was supposed to be respite, offering Southgate the chance to play free-flowing football, trying out his array of attacking talent without anyone really being bothered about the score.
In June they opened their campaign, all be it after a long hard Premier League season, with a 1-0 defeat in Hungary where they were beaten by the better of two average sides, playing an underwhelming 5-3-2 system that failed to utilise the attacking options of Tammy Abraham and Raheem Sterling who stayed stale whilst sitting on the bench. Jarrod Bowen instead given his debut and a full ninety minute run.
Following that, England, and Bowen, were better in Germany drawing 1-1 thanks to a late Harry Kane penalty. Playing a 4-2-3-1 system, they played arguably their best of all during their dismal group stage run of six matches and no wins before an underwhelming closed door nil-nil v Italy and a few days later, a real trouncing at the hands of Hungary in Wolverhampton, the biggest defeat in years ending a hugely embarrassing 0-4 to the Magyars with calls for the gaffers head starting to echo more loudly on these shores.
In September the Nations League returned for another two matches, crammed in un-necessarily to an already packed season, it at least offered Southgate the chance to improve and try something a little more adventurous, but a 1-0 defeat in Italy ensured England would be relegated from their group, at a whimper, next time it’ll be Iceland, Albania, Finland and Montenegro instead of facing Italy & Germany in the Nations League, I’m sure they’ll be more competitive in their new found level?
Germany came to Wembley and for 45 minutes, like in Italy, it was as equally drab as it could get, the visitors went 2-0 up after half time and for another 25 minutes it was worst possible scenario… Would Southgate even make the World Cup finals? Boos only lessened to the cheers of paper aeroplanes being thrown… But a late comeback by England revitalised a nation, goals from Shaw, Mount, Kane, giving the country some hope… Before Pope ruined it all by spilling a weak shot to let in Havertz on the rebound for a late equaliser.
But that spell, for twenty minutes in the second half, perhaps giving a glimmer of hope that we all need? Perhaps England and Southgate do have a chance after all? But we need to play much better than in recent games.
Opening up in Qatar for England is Iran on November 21st, a formality you say? Before another generous looking opponent in USA four days later, ahead of Wales on Nov 29, which by then, we hope to be already through.
Southgate can’t really look past that, because getting out of the group on current form is main goal, anything else a bonus, including avoiding tough ties to progress further, what the manager now needs to do is select a squad capable of beating all three opponents standing in front of his immediate way of progression, before hoping they click, for the later stages of the tournament.
In Southgate’s recent squad selections, it looks like the goalkeeper department is pretty much a done thing. Pickford is number one, my own number two is Ramsdale who like Pickford, is very good with his feet, then it might be out of Pope and Henderson for the third choice slot, whilst Pope might not have done himself any favours against Germany, Southgate may put a sympathetic arm around him, he’s been prone to manage similar situations with another selection in the past, but Pope’s footwork is way behind that of Henderson, although he may be better shot stopper if recent Nottingham Forest results are anything to go by.
At right back, this is where Southgate earns his money. Kyle Walker could now miss the world cup with a groin injury which opens the door for options, Reece James looks to be the preferred player of the moment, Trent Alexander Arnold wasn’t utilised verses Italy or Germany, Kieran Trippier on the bench for both. There’s a case for all three going, there’s a case for all three playing a huge part against Iran, USA and Wales.
The left back conundrum is one that needs desperately resolving. Bukayo Saka filling in v Italy, Reece James doing a job in the 4-0 loss v Hungary, not good enough for an England manager who has the likes of Luke Shaw, all be it not playing well, returning to duty, and Ben Chilwell, the best we have, sitting stale on England’s bench.
Both Chilwell and Shaw should, make the squad, with either a competent option for starting the group stages. No excuses to play playuers out of position.
At centre back England’s problems lie thickest. Harry Maguire is a favourite of Southgate but has been out of form for Manchester United, Eric Dier has recently been recalled and looks like he’ll play central of the three, John Stones the other best of a bad bunch. Connor Coady, for me is dependable deputy, without Walker, Southgate has limited options, and could call for someone in form? Ben White or Dan Burn perhaps, who have been playing out of position for their club sides? At least offer flexible option… James Tarkowski, Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guehi, Tyrone Mings, Craig Dawson? The list doesn’t jump out and excite.
Midfield however seems more settled and fun with the recent link up of positivity between Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham. Kalvin Phillips is a steady enforcer who can be depended if needed whilst Jordan Henderson will offer those captain like collectives that Southgate will look to for inspiration, even if more off the field, than on it. Could he go as the nation’s in-house cheerleader?
James Ward Prowse is one that could have a chance of making the plane, Southgate loves him and he’s a player that will always give 100% – a dead ball specialist too.
In attack, those in behind the main striker Harry Kane who will hopefully play every minute of every (important) match, will offer the manager most selection headache. Recent calls for James Maddison must be answered as England’s goal power looks to have dried up in recent weeks. Although Southgate doesn’t seem a fan? Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden are certain starters, for me, Jack Grealish should be used as much as possible to break the stingiest of opposition defences down, Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount shone as subs in the draw with Germany, they offer Southgate that defensive attitude he wants from all his players, whilst being decent going forward too.
There may be time for one last slot to be filled by an in-form star who grabs the bull by the horns. Jadon Sancho was unlucky to miss out on the recent call-ups having improved lately for Manchester United. Could Marcus Rashford break his way through? Would Southgate pomp for an Ivan Toney or Ollie Watkins? It feels he’s not jumping over barriers to include Tammy Abraham in his teams.
Whoever Southgate picks, a large proportion won’t be surprise. The only questions really arising on how he shuffles his cards, how he deals and how he plays his hands? The opposition of Iran, USA and Wales will allow England to have a lot of the ball, England are expected to dominate and they don’t need three centre halves, especially in their opening match.
If they play progressive forward thinking football with the right players picked in the right attacking formation they’ll be too much to handle for the others, from there it’s about getting the right draw and gelling with a little bit of luck needed along the way.
England’s probable 26-man squad:
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale, Nick Pope.
Defenders: Reece James, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Luke Shaw, Ben Chilwell, Harry Maguire, Eric Dier, John Stones, Connor Coady, Fikayo Tomori.
Midfielders: Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Jordan Henderson, James Ward Prowse, Kalvin Phillips, Mason Mount.
Forwards: Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, James Maddison, Harry Kane, Tammy Abraham.
Missing out: Ivan Toney, Ollie Watkins, Jarrod Bowen, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Conor Gallagher, Marc Guehi, Ben White, Dean Henderson.
Injured: Kyle Walker.