Players struggling at club level
Gareth Southgate risks getting into trouble if he picks players on reputation rather than form. The England manager has claimed he is right to consider international performance when selecting a squad, but with several key figures struggling at club level, it will be interesting to see how far Southgate’s loyal streak goes ahead of the World Cup.
There are problems across the board. At left-back there are concerns for Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell, who recently returned from a serious knee injury, and Luke Shaw, who has lost his place at Manchester United. In midfield, Kalvin Phillips, missing from this camp with a shoulder problem, has barely played since joining Manchester City. Further forward Mason Mount is going through a dip at Chelsea and Jarrod Bowen has been underwhelming for West Ham this season. Is Bowen really a better bet than Jadon Sancho?
Then there’s Harry Maguire. United’s centre-back presents Southgate with his biggest conundrum. Will he follow Erik ten Hag’s lead and let him go? United have been far more solid without Maguire and there is no reason for Southgate to start him if he is not playing for his club. Fikayo Tomori plays every week for Milan, who won Serie A last season, and Eric Dier has excelled for Tottenham.
Three or four behind?
England’s disastrous start to their Nations League campaign could scare Southgate into being even more pragmatic. The memory of Hungary running riot at Molineux is still raw and it would not be a surprise if England line up in a 3-4-3 when they face Italy on Friday and Germany on Monday.
Still, a lot will depend on how Southgate sets up the team. Reece James and Chilwell would be progressive options as wing-backs. A floating front tree can be exciting. A strike partner for Declan Rice in midfield could be a game-changer.
The concern, however, is that Southgate is veering towards negativity. Perhaps England lack the centre-backs to play 4-3-3, but the argument against caution is that they hardly lack creative players. Is it time for them to play to their strengths?
Make a decision about Alexander-Arnold
Trent Alexander-Arnold is a brilliant footballer. His crosses are astonishing, his passing range is fantastic and he is regularly one of Liverpool’s best creators. None of that means he is guaranteed to make it to the World Cup. It’s hard to ignore Alexander-Arnold’s defensive struggles for Liverpool. He is not the same player for England. He has not flourished for Southgate, who has often preferred the less exciting but more reliable Kieran Trippier, and the sense is that Alexander-Arnold needs this camp to go well. Otherwise, it’s hard to see any point in Southgate stuffing four right-backs into his squad.
Get the best out of Foden
There was much excitement surrounding Phil Foden ahead of Euro 2020. The City youngster appeared with dyed blonde hair, inevitably drawing comparisons to Paul Gascoigne’s Euro 96 look, but he ended up having a disappointing tournament for reasons largely beyond his control control.
It has been frustrating for Foden, whose international career is not yet underway. But England need to figure out how to use him. This is a player that Pep Guardiola trusts, having used Foden as a winger, a false 9, a No. 10 and a No. 8. England, who have not scored from open play in their last four games, must exploit Foden’s ingenuity .
The dependence on Kane and Sterling
Southgate needs more from his forwards. England are too dependent on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling for their goals. Mount must take more responsibility on the ball and Southgate wants Bowen, Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish to emulate Sterling by playing in with goals from the flanks.
England are obsolete in attack. The threat comes from Kane, but what happens if the captain has no service, has a bad game or gets an injury? Southgate needs depth. As it stands, Tammy Abraham has yet to prove himself a suitable replacement. Ivan Toney, called up for the first time, will hope to prove he can be England’s plan B. That is a concern for Southgate, who could do with Marcus Rashford recovering from the injury that has forced the United forward to miss these matches. Rashford, who has shown signs of returning to his best, has lifted the burden on Kane and Sterling in the past.