It’s been a better than expected international break for England and their manager with draws against the world’s 2 top ranked teams, so what did we establish with only 2 more firnedlies to play before the World Cup squad is selected.
- 3 at the back is now Plan A. After the dour but effective qualifying performances with 4-2-3-1 the friendlies were a chance to change it up and Southgate has done just that. The switch to 3 at the back perfectly fits the ball playing defenders of which England suddenly have an abundance and the attacking fullbacks at their disposal. With the marked improvement in performance this week it’s clear England will go with a variant on 3-4-3 (this week was largely 3-4-1-2), with a flat back 4 the back up option.
- Southgate can organise a defence. Southgate is something of a blank canvas of a manager, meaning his lack of club football management means we don’t have a clear idea what style his teams will play, in contrast to Sam Allardyce whose style of play was self-evident, Hooofff! This week showed Southgate can organize a side defensively with England restricting Germany & Brazil to a handful of chances. Southgate was quick to trumpet England boasting the best defensive record in European qualifying (3 goals conceded in 10 games), but that seemed more a result of weak opposition than great defending, but it’s clear now England can defend against higher quality teams.
- Midfield pair still a problem. Amongst all the good news England’s midfield pairing remains a problem. It was unfortunate Harry Winks & Fabian Delph both pulled out injured. Winks may well be England’s best option in partnership with Spurs teammates Eric Dier & Dele Alli. Instead we got another demonstration of why Jake Livermore is not an international class midfielder. An urgent prioirty for the next international break.
- We’re going with youth. There was further proof of joined up thinking between the age group sides and senior team this week. First the Under 21s filled in the gaps in the senior training sides. More importantly when England needed more players drafted in for the Brazil game Southgate called up Under 21s Angus Gunn, Lewis Cook and Dominic Solanke with Solanke making his debut. Turning to youngsters trusted from success with the junior sides looks sensible given England’s successes this year and shows an England manager more willing to trust youth team players than most Premier League bosses.
- Danny Rose is a key man. It was great to see Rose marauding down the left-wing against Germany, his pace, willingness to get forward and crossing are essential in a 3-4-3 formation. Against Brazil he was replaced with the functional Ryan Bertrand who was his usual solid self until he presented Brazil with their best chance of the game. England look vastly better with Rose who now fit is a certain starter in Rusia.
- Wilshere out but the arguments will continue. No current English player causes as much debate as Jack Wilshere. However he was not amongst the initial 6 central midfielders in the squad and when the pullouts occurred Southgate called up Jack Cork, Lewis Cook & Jake Livermore whilst Danny Drinkwater turned down the call, add to mix long-term injury victims Nat Chalobah & Ross Barkley and Wilshere is at the back of a lengthy queue. Plenty in the media made the case for Wilshere most vociferously Charlie Nicholas who lambasted the England Manager for initially overlooking Wilshere and then saying Southgate was contradicted himself by picking Jesse Lingard and excluding poor Jack, you’d think Charlie once played for Arsenal, own wait… What Wilshere’s advocates fail to point out is aside from the obvious problem of him not starting a Premier League all season, England will face 3 group games in 10 games at the World Cup, were they to make the quarter finals that would be 5 games in 21 days and anything further 7 in 30 days- do you see Wilshere being available for all that? Exactly!
- The Goalkeepers are confirmed, but not the pecking order is up for grabs. Joe Hart & Jack Butland were already guaranteed a spot next summer and Jordan Pickford’s performance against Germany ensured he’ll be on the flight to Russia, meaning Fraser Forster can book his holidays for June. Hart’s experience makes him the favourite to start but Butland and Pickford have the time to make an outstanding case to push ahead of him before England’s next games in March, Pickford’s distribution skills make him the more likely challenger.
- There’s an opening for a young striker. With Jermain Defoe dropped due to his lack of goals and Danny Welbeck & Daniel Sturridge due to their lack of physical durability (see also Jack Wilshere) there’s a 4th striker spot up for grabs. Tammy Abraham did nothing wrong on debut but didn’t cement his place whilst Solanke looked good but it’s hard to shake the suspicion this World Cup will come a year too soon for him (ditto Dominic Calvert-Lewin). Leicester winger Demarai Gray might come into the equation with a good run of form or Southgate may just decide to pick an extra midfielder, what’s clear is there’s a spot up to be claimed here.
- Joe Gomez will go to the World Cup. Did anyone else think he might be the weak link in England’s defence against Brazil? Gomez was outstanding and as Lee Dixon pointed out he now has 2 ticks against his name. Playing 3 at the back means England need to take 5 central defenders to Russia, some have argued Dier could be the emergency 5th choice defender but given England’s central midfield problems he’s unlikely to be pressed into service in defence. Only John Stones & Phil Jones appear to be ahead of Gomez in the pecking order- particularly with Gary Cahill in patchy form for Chelsea, with Harry Maguire & Michael Keane sweating on a place.
- Ruben Loftus-Cheek may well join him. Deservedly man of the match against Germany, Loftus-Cheek appears to be an option as a number 10, where he’d go to Russia as second fiddle to Dele Alli. But competition for attacking midfield places is fierce and will intensify further should Ross Barkley get his act together. But for now RLC couldn’t have done any more to get himself to the World Cup.
- Veterans in-form still in the picture. Ashley Young’s call up 4 years on from his last cap shows Southgate will look at veterans amongst all the kids. Young made one goal saving interception and delivered a pinpoint cross which Solanke almost turned home for the winner. Young may well go to the World Cup as second choice left wingback and all round utility player and it should give others hope a good run of form could bring them to Southgate’s attention- Yes Jonjo Shelvey we’re looking at you!
Football fan, follower of England, Leeds and will watch any game possible (between raising twins!)