England finished an encouraging season third in the Nations League finals, after a penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland. But could Gareth Southgate’s side look very different come their next get together for September’s European Qualifiers?
There have been clear signs of progress from the national team since their run to the semi-finals of the World Cup last summer.
But there has been evidence of familiar flaws, too. An inability to control possession in the middle of the pitch against the Netherlands was as worrying as the shocking individual errors which cost England a place in the final.
The squad Gareth Southgate selects for England’s next matches against Bulgaria and Kosovo could have a very different look to it.
Here, we take a look at the competition for places across the pitch, the young players trying to force their way in and the current incumbents who may still have something to prove. Read on and then pick your strongest England XI using our team selector at the bottom of the page.
Goalkeeper – Pickford makes his point
Overall, Jordan Pickford had a below-par Premier League campaign with Everton, struggling for a period after his Merseyside derby howler and, despite a strong run of clean sheets in the final part of the season, there were murmurings about his place as England’s No1 before the tournament. But in the shoot-out win over Switzerland he delivered a reminder of why he’s an important character in this England squad.
He became the first England goalkeeper ever to smash in a spot-kick and then made himself the hero with a fine stop to deny Josip Drmic.
The fact Jack Butland and Tom Heaton only had watching briefs in Portugal – despite the third-place play-off presenting Southgate with a chance to rotate – suggests Pickford is the clear choice for Southgate right now and should be in September.
Pickford has played very well over the two games, Andy Dunn, The Mirror‘s chief sports writer told the Nations League Supplement podcast. He’s maturing as a keeper.
He has a propensity to be so hyped up and we have seen some rash decisions he’s made in an England jersey before and he has made the odd mistake. But he’s been excellent over these two games. He’s established himself now as a mature England No1 keeper.
Defence – Gomez and Maguire now ahead of Stones?
The Nations League finals may well have solved Southgate’s selection dilemma at centre-back. While the manager spoke about standing by John Stones following his decisive error against the Dutch, he cannot ignore the class Joe Gomez showed alongside fan favourite Harry Maguire against Switzerland.
Stones has struggled to hold down a place in the Manchester City team and his mistake was a familiar case of over-confidence or misjudgement. It’s a stupid mistake and a stupid decision to turn on it and try to be clever, said Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher at the time.
Matt Dunn, football reporter for The Express, told the Nations League Supplement podcast: I think Stones has got a long way to come back from that. I think Southgate felt let down by him. He’s concerned he’s not playing enough for Man City and if he’s not playing his best stuff he’s going to look elsewhere.
In contrast, Gomez continued to allow England to pursue their policy of playing out from the back against Switzerland – but removed the element of risk. Gomez completed everyone of his 47 passes in the first-half and, alongside that, topped England’s stats for clearances and interceptions while winning every one of his headers.
Fully recovered from the fractured leg he sustained in December, Gomez will only improve by September, once he has a full pre-season under his belt. Expect him to line-up alongside powerhouse – and penalty taker – Maguire against Bulgaria.
At full-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold produced a starring role at right-back on Sunday afternoon, creating seven chances for his team-mates with a string of superb crosses into the box. His performance was in sharp contrast to Kyle Walker’s underwhelming display against the Dutch and even when the Man City man came on against Switzerland – at left-back – his contributions were below the standard of his 20-year-old team-mate.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is England’s right-back from now going on for a very long time, said Andy Dunn. His levels at the moment for club and country are sky high. When Kyle Walker came on, the contrast between the two was so stark. He should have played against the Dutch. But against Switzerland he was magnificent.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka – the Crystal Palace youngster who Manchester United bid £40m for – and Tottenham’s out of form Kieran Trippier will also be vying for that right-back berth, where England look suitably stocked for years to come.
There are slightly fewer options at left-back but the current status quo would see Ben Chilwell and Danny Rose in contention, while Manchester United’s player of the year Luke Shaw knows he has a lot of work to do to convince Southgate he deserves another shot.
Midfield – Who are the solutions?
England are seemingly short on combative defensive midfielders who can sit in front of the backline, disrupt opposition attacks and then kick-start offensives themselves, which means Declan Rice and Eric Dier are likely to remain go-to men for Southgate for some time.
A ball-playing alternative is Harry Winks, who was released from the England camp ahead of Tottenham’s Champions League final following an injury lay-off. He will make the Euro 2020 squad without a doubt, added Dunn. If Southgate had known Winks would start the Champions League final and equip himself very well, then he’d certainly be here at the Nations League. He’s a Southgate favourite.
Finding the right player in central midfield is crucial. It’s a weakness which, in Portugal, has come to the fore, with England short on a player capable of receiving the ball and then moving the play up the field.
The other night, after 10 minutes I was looking at our midfielders and looking at their midfielders and thinking that there was a gulf in class here in terms of how to control a football match, said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, referring to the defeat to the Netherlands.
These types of players are so important and we just haven’t got those types of players to be able to accept the ball on the half turn and rotate in midfield and create space for each other. I always think controlling games is a problem from an England point of view.
Until a solution is found, Jordan Henderson remains a key player, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek – who has the potential to perform that role – is a long-term injury absentee and not set to be back for the September games.
That could open the door for the likes of Leicester’s England U21 James Maddison, Chelsea’s Mason Mount who has impressed on loan in the Championship under Frank Lampard’s management at Derby, as well as England regulars Ross Barkley and Dele Alli.
Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish could convince Southgate he has the quality required – he will be playing regularly in the Premier League next season, which will be an advantage. But is Fabian Delph really a long-term solution in the middle of the park? The Manchester City midfielder – who has started just four games in 2019 – failed to fully convince across his two outings in Portugal.
Southgate likes Delph around the squad, explained Dunn. He’s part of the leadership group, a senior player. Someone who lifts people, organises things – he’s the chairman of the England book club – but to play both games is a surprise to me. He does have the fitness level to close people down and win the ball in midfield but surely now, Delph can’t be an integral part going forwards.
Attack – Kane, Sterling, and…?
Assuming he is fit, captain Harry Kane will lead the line in September’s qualifiers, without question. The more difficult issue for Southgate is who fits in around him.
Raheem Sterling, in spite of his wastefulness against Switzerland, when he passed up at least three clear-cut chances to hit the net, will also be in the side barring a significant twist – especially as he has become part of the leadership team on this tour, captaining the side against the Netherlands on his 50th cap.
The third place in the attacking trident of Southgate’s favoured 4-3-3 could be up for grabs, though. Marcus Rashford, of course, will have a strong case. He impressed against the Dutch – winning and then coolly converting the penalty – until he was forced off with injury at half-time and completed the trio with Sterling and Kane in England’s win away to Spain last year, the best performance under Southgate’s tenure.
Young contenders include Callum Hudson-Odoi, who showed plenty of promise once he finally got a run of games under Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, but a long-term injury takes him out of the frame for now. Jadon Sancho has also grabbed his international opportunities and clearly – given Southgate’s preference for having the 19-year-old in the senior side rather than easing him through the youth ranks – has the backing of his manager.
Phil Foden could also come into contention should he start the season having more involvement in Manchester City’s Premier League XI, while an older option could be Liverpool’s Adam Lallana. A one-time England regular, the tricky attacker has overcome a spell in the treatment room and will be eager to get his 2019/20 season off to a flyer.
So, with everyone fit and firing, who makes it into England’s strongest XI in your opinion?
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