An International break away from the action of domestic, Champions League and Europa League football isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. A lot of people just hope for it to be over as quickly as possible. As much as there is still a sense of that, things do feel slightly different this time round. England’s latest World Cup campaign really brought back some support and passion for the Three Lions after a number of disappointing tournaments prior to it. There’s plenty of fans who are eager to find out if Southgate’s men are able to build on this performance in both upcoming fixtures and in the long run. On top of this, the fixtures in this particular break aren’t virtually pointless friendlies or matches in a brand new tournament, like the Nations League which, let’s be honest, no one is overly desperate to win. No, the upcoming games are European Championship Qualifiers and England will want to get off to a good start against the Czech Republic and Montenegro in order to give themselves the best chance of reaching the finals. So, let’s take a look at the squad Southgate has chosen to try and do that.
Starting from the back, the goalkeepers are pretty much what we expected. Jordan Pickford hasn’t always met his own high expectations at Everton this season making a fair few mistakes; the clanger which handed Liverpool a late win in the Merseyside derby being one of them. However, given his outstanding performances and shootout heroics against Colombia in the World Cup, it seems that Pickford would have to suffer a pretty severe dip in form for both club and country in order to no longer be considered as England’s number one. When it comes to the other keepers, the only somewhat debatable inclusion is that of Jack Butland. The Stoke keeper hasn’t done anything wrong but dropping from the Premier League down into the Championship is never going to boost your claim when it comes to selection for the national team. As much as it probably is greatly due to a lot of people paying less attention to English football’s second tier, Butland doesn’t seem to have done outstandingly well or awful this season. This is not necessarily a criticism of him, it’s just if you compare what he’s done personally and for his side to the likes of Ben Foster at Watford, for example, most would probably argue that Foster deserves the call-up more. Having said this, it’s understandable why Southgate has gone with Butland. Foster has had his period in the England team. Butland is younger and has arguably been more consistent over a few years now. Butland will benefit England more going forward than Foster would so it makes sense to include him now and develop him rather than just using Foster briefly based on short-term form.
Moving up the team to the defence and there’s more than one player we could debate over here. When it comes to the full-backs, England are in a decent position, particularly on the right side. They seem to have a constant supply of exciting young right talents coming through the ranks and competing with the more senior players in that position. Trippier was the first choice in the World Cup and was arguably one of the best players throughout. Yet, his form has definitely dropped for Tottenham this season as he’s failed to put in performances anywhere near what we became used to seeing from him. Although Southgate may have some loyalty to him, he has to be thinking about giving one of the many others a chance. The fact that Walker is now most regularly used as a right sided centre back for the national team, Liverpool’s Alexander-Arnold is probably England’s best current right back. The options in this position don’t end with just the players included in the squad. Crystal Palace’s Wan-Bissaka has been one of the best defenders in the Premier League statistically this season and, although injury dropouts Shaw and Delph both ordinarily play left back, Wan-Bissaka would probably have been the most logical candidate to fill in for either of them. Of course, he probably wouldn’t start with left backs Rose and Chilwell still in the squad, but surely it still makes sense to replace a defender with another defender. It’s a similar story when it comes to the centre backs. John Stones has also pulled out through injury but again, he wasn’t replaced by someone of the same position. Even without his absence, some of the other inclusions seem to be based on past involvement rather than current performance. Tarkowski and Burnley have been far from their usual solid selves but he’s still made the squad. Coady has been a rock at the back for the high-flying Wolves and Smalling has definitely improved since Solskjaers arrival, both of whom deserve a place in the team more than Tarkowski.
There’s also a few surprise inclusions when it comes to the midfield, but these are, I believe, more positive ones than what we’ve seen in the backline. Ward-Prowse and Hudson-Odoi are both players who were selected late following the injuries already mentioned. Ward-Prowse has been outstanding for Southampton lately, seeming to now be adding goals to his game, a crucial aspect for any creative midfielder. England aren’t blessed with excellent playmakers, Dele Alli being the man who is greatly relied on in this area. Ward-Prowse, like Barkley, could provide a different and much needed option for Southgate when it comes to central midfield. Unlike Ward-Prowse, Hudson-Odoi hasn’t exactly set the world alight for his club; he hasn’t even started a single Premier League game this season. However, Hudson-Odoi is something of an exception when it comes to the national side. Most players usually stake their claim based on impressive performances over a period of time. Whilst he’s played well in the Europa League, he hasn’t done so domestically but this is down to virtually no fault of his own. There’s no denying the ability and potential Hudson-Odoi possesses; Southgate can clearly see that which is why he’s given him the sort of chance Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri has greatly denied him all season. Although Declan Rice is new to the England setup, his inclusion isn’t really a surprise. Ever since changing his allegiance from Ireland to England, he was almost guaranteed a place in the squad. He is now, probably, the best holding midfielder England have. His selection isn’t really what’s debatable, it’s whether we now need three holding midfielders. Rice, Henderson and Dier all do a very similar job and you really only need one of them to play at a time. Rice and Henderson are both secure defensively but they offer more going forward than Dier so if anyone was going to be cut from the squad following Rice’s call-up, it would surely have to be the Spurs man.
The attack is really the only place where there’s no arguments whatsoever. As we all know, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling have been prolific for their respective clubs for a while now, whilst Marcus Rashford, just like most of the Manchester United players, has experienced a rejuvenation since Solskjaer’s takeover. Jamie Vardy’s retirement from international duty leaves Callum Wilson as the obvious choice to take the spot as what will most likely be an impact sub. It’s always difficult to tell exactly what formation Southgate will go for but there’s certainly plenty available. In the World Cup he opted to play 3 at the back with very attacking wing backs. He may stick with this and play with two forwards, most likely Kane and rashford with Sterling just behind, but then it’s difficult to see where the likes of Sancho and Hudon-Odoi come into the equation. The other most likely option is a 4-3-3. England have an abundance of central midfielders so they’d have no problem filling that 3 in midfield. This would then probably mean Sterling and Sancho would play either side of Kane in attack. Again, this raises issues such as Rashford, who is potentially too good not to start, being left on the bench. It’s obviously a different system at the back as well which could mean a number of strong candidates, especially for right back, are left out.
We could debate endlessly about what is England’s strongest squad, let alone their strongest starting lineup. However, the high number of arguments there are within this team should in no way be considered a negative. It shows that Southgate has plenty of options with exstenive strength in depth. Yes, a few high-class players may have to start on the bench but again, this isn’t a bad thing. Impact subs are absolutely crucial, even more so given the way Southgate likes to play; pressing high with the full backs constantly bombing up and down the wings. Fatigue is bound to be a factor so it’s great that England have more than one option in every position. Things are looking bright for the England national team and the Semi-final in last year’s World Cup could be just the start.