Southgate opts for flexibility in versatile squad
England released their 23-man squad for this summer’s FIFA World Cup on Wednesday afternoon. As expected, there was no place for Joe Hart or Jack Wilshere while 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold received his first call up.
ENRG Sport writer Jamie Braidwood breaks down some of England manager Gareth Southgate’s biggest decisions and looks ahead to how the team may line up this summer.
Head over Hart
As it was before the 2010 World Cup, England’s goalkeepers have been one of the the biggest talking points in the build-up to this summer’s tournament.
Joe Hart’s exclusion from the squad became breaking news the day before the official announcement, but the decision to leave out the man who has been England’s number one for the last three major tournaments is hardly a surprise.
Hart was only recently given a consistent run in West Ham’s starting 11 after playing second fiddle to Adrian. His second season away from Manchester City was ultimately as uninspiring as his first and will be remembered, again, for too many individual errors.
The 31-year-old’s career has never really recovered from his poor showing at Euro 2016 but the one thing Hart could boast over any other England goalkeeper was experience – Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and Nick Pope, England’s goalkeepers for Russia 2018, only have nine international caps between them – but Southgate has overlooked that completely.
It is now down to Pickford, Butland and Pope to fight over the next few weeks for that starting spot against Tunisia on June 18. Pickford and Butland were given a game each for England’s most recent friendly matches against Italy and Holland in March, so it looks like it’ll be a toss-up between them.
Nick Pope, however, is the wildcard option. The 26-year-old wasn’t even first choice at his club Burnley at the start of the season but benefited massively from an injury to Tom Heaton. Pope impressed as Burnley finished 7th and has had the best individual season out of the three contenders. It would be a fairytale story if he played a part in England’s World Cup this summer.
Southgate opts for versatility
Ever since Antonio Conte’s Chelsea found success with 3-4-3 in their 2016/17 title winning season, the tactic of using three at the back has spread around the English game.
Southgate’s selection indicates that he intends to play the same way this summer, after experimenting with the formation over England’s qualifying campaign and recent friendlies.
England’s 23-man squad includes at least seven players who could play wing-back in a 3-4-3 – one of the positions that is critical to the formation; which is a key indicator that England will line up this way this summer.
But crucially, England have options. Whenever faced with the decision, Southgate has opted for versatility with his squad selection. Players such as Eric Dier, Fabian Delph and Trent Alexander-Arnold have played both in defence and midfield for their clubs this season, therefore becoming more valuable to Southgate than other midfield options like Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey.
Others such as Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young are all fast, attack-minded players who would suit taking on more offensive responsibilities playing as a wing-back, but can also play full-back in a four-man defence. If he needs to change his plan, Southgate won’t be restricted by having too many specialists.
Kane to lead the line
(3-4-2-1) Butland; Walker, Stones, Jones; Trippier, Henderson, Dier, Rose; Alli, Sterling; Kane
I think Southgate will line up with three at the back, two wing-backs, two holding midfielders, and then with two creative midfielders behind a central striker.
Kyle Walker has been used as a right-sided centre-back in previous friendlies, and I’d expect him to play there again in Russia. Fitness permitting, John Stones will be England’s central defender with Phil Jones, England’s most versatile centre-back, to slot in to his left.
Trent Alexander-Arnold may yet win the Champions League before his full England debut, and will certainly at least play in a final. He could make a late run to the starting line-up at right wing-back but Kieran Trippier is still the more probable option. On the left, Danny Rose will be given England’s warm-up games to prove his fitness after an injury-hit season and would be Southgate’s preferred option, although Ashley Young has enjoyed a stellar season and would be a good replacement.
Southgate likes Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier and they should be his starting central-midfielders. The lack of other options in the squad suggest that the pair are firmly his two. Keep an eye out for Ruben Loftus-Cheek however, who could be used instead of the more defensive-minded Dier against Tunisia and Panama.
Harry Kane is England’s stand-out player and how England fare this summer will probably be down to him. There are fitness concerns around the striker but there is no way he isn’t starting for England. He may line up on his own up-front, with the creativity of Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling in behind him.
Alternatively, Southgate could opt to go for two up top, especially when wanting to utilise the pace of Jamie Vardy. Alli may then drop back to midfield, with Sterling playing in between.
As for who’s in the sticks, it really is 50/50 between Butland and Pickford, but I think he’ll go for Butland.
Goalkeepers: Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope
Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Danny Rose, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Ashley Young
Midfielders: Dele Alli, Fabian Delph, Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Jesse Lingard, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Raheem Sterling
Forwards: Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Danny Welbeck, Jamie Vardy