We are just over a week away from the kicking off of the most controversial World Cup. One that proves money is more important than human rights in the eyes of FIFA. One that has caused a drastic shake-up of the football calendar as players are made to face off in dangerous temperatures. And while there will rightly be much talk of matters away from the pitch,there is still a football tournament to watch.
And the build-up to the tournament took it’s next step forward with the naming of Gareth Southgate’s squad. After impressive results in the last 2 tournaments, England have had a year to forget that saw them embarrassed by Hungary on the way to being relegated to Division B in the UEFA Nations League. With a pool containing USA, Iran and Wales, they should be heavy favourites to progress, but how will they do? Can the Three Lions bring it home? Let’s have a look at the squad…
No real shocks here, as Aaron Ramsdale and Nick Pope have had solid starts to the season, while Jordan Pickford is the incumbent. Pickford has the international experience and Southgate has frequently shown his loyalty to players, so while I feel that one of the others would be more reliable, expect the Everton keeper to get the gametime and hopefully not cost the team with a calamitous error.
England’s fullback stocks took a massive hit as injuries ruled out Reece James and Ben Chilwell, who would likely have both started. Shaw has had an up and down career but has performed well as a wingback in big games for England, while it will be interesting to see if Southgate prefers the reliability of Kieran Trippier to the sublime attacking quality but questionable defending of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Most likely England play at the back with wing-backs, so I would advocate taking the risk. With that formation taken into account, Kyle Walker seems a reliable call to start on the right of the 3 to help cover Alexander-Arnold, but runs the risk of being undercooked as he returns from injury. To the disappointment of most, Southgate’s loyalty will likely see Harry Maguire continue to start, and we must all help that the Maguire who has been an embarrassment of a captain at Manchester United is not the one on the plane. White, Coady, Stones and Dier are all solid picks, but Fikayo Tomori seems very unlucky to miss out on a spot.
So let’s start with the elephant in the room: Kalvin Phillips is not enough of a generational talent to deserve an immediate spot in the squad after being injured all season, but as another old favourite of Southgate’s he gets in on thoroughly underserved bias ahead of players who have been putting in the effort and performances. Let’s just hope that he is left on the bench rather than forming another partnership with Declan Rice or it will be a very boring tournament for England fans. Henderson provides experience and will likely be brought on to help see out games late on or lead a second string team if they get a chance, while Conor Gallagher is rewarded for his form over the past season and a half, and Mason Mount would have been unlucky to miss out despite an iffy start to the season for Chelsea. All that remains then is Jude Bellingham, who is a player whose quality and maturity is well beyond his age—as one of the few world class talents in this squad, he needs to be starting!
And so we reach the final third, where the headline is (finally!) the inclusion of James Maddison—that he only has 1 cap to his name is indicative of Southgate’s issues as a manager, having been one of the best attacking players in the league for years. Harry Kane will obviously lead the line as per,while Callum Wilson’s form deserves a call-up. But spare a thought for Ivan Toney, who misses out. Personally I could have understood his inclusion ahead of Marcus Rashford, but understand that Rashford’s pace and ability to cover the wide position gives him an advantage when numbers are limited. It’s no shock to see Sterling in the squad, but with more talented players like Foden, Grealish, Saka and Maddison, his minutes should be limited—so expect Southgate to play him the full 90 in every match.
And finally we reach the gaffer himself, and here lies England’s biggest issue. While Southgate did a fantastic job of bringing pride back to the shirt and the team, his successful tournament runs have been more about the easy routes then England looking great. But what has frequently been the issue is his inability to play an attacking game, frequently leaving his most impressive playmakers on the bench and relying on formations that feature 5 at the back and 2 holding midfielders, while his loyalty to players who have done well for him in the past is destined to come back to hurt him at a big moment soon. To me, this feels like 1 tournament too far, and it is time for England to move on going into 2023.
My starting XI from this squad:
Goalkeeper: Aaron Ramsdale
Centrebacks: Kyle Walker, Ben White, John Stones
Wingbacks: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Luke Shaw
Midfielders: Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham
Wings: Bukayo Saka, James Maddison
Striker: Harry Kane
What are your thoughts on the squad? Who would make your XI?