The manager faces selection dilemmas over his goalkeepers, wing-backs, centre-backs and attacking midfielders
By Ben McAleer for WhoScored? of the Sport Network
Gareth Southgate has just two more opportunities to see his team play before the World Cup: at Wembley against Nigeria on Saturday evening and at Elland Road against Costa Rica next Thursday. With the World Cup less than a fortnight away, the England manager has five big decisions to make.
1) Who should play in goal?
Southgate has made the call to drop Joe Hart, his No1 just six months ago. Now he faces an even bigger decision: whether Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford or Nick Pope should take over as his first choice keeper for the World Cup.
Pope had a brilliant season for Burnley. He only conceded 22 goals in 27 games; he kept more clean sheets (11) than any other English keeper; and he had the second highest save percentage in the league – 75.3%, below just David de Gea. Regardless, he only made his Premier League debut in September and has not yet played for his country, so is likely to be No3.
Southgate will use the two friendlies to determine whether Butland or Pickford should start in Russia. The stats suggest Butland would be better choice. He made more saves (142) than any other goalkeeper in the league this season and had a better save success rate than Pickford – 70.6% to 65.8%.
2) Harry Maguire or Gary Cahill?
Southgate is expected to play a three-man defence in Russia, having used the system in recent matches, but he faces a conundrum when it comes to picking Harry Maguire or Gary Cahill. Kyle Walker is likely to start on the right of the back three, with his Manchester City team-mate John Stones in the middle (despite his lack of game time in the second half of the season). That opens up a space on the left of the defence for either Maguire or Cahill
The Chelsea captain won the FA Cup in his final match of the season to complete a full set of club honours – Champions League, Europa League, Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup – and he has experience on his side. The 32-year-old has earned more caps (58) than any other player in the squad, though his form has been up and down this season. Maguire, while impressive in his debut campaign for Leicester, has just four caps to his name and is more accustomed to a back four. It’s a selection headache for Southgate.
3) Where to use Kyle Walker?
No player has made more appearances for England under Southgate than Kyle Walker (14). The dilemma is not whether to play him but where to play him. If Southgate uses a three-man defence, Walker is likely to be one of the centre-backs. The defensive side to his game has improved since his £53m move to Manchester City last summer but using him as a centre-back robs England of his attacking ability. Walker laid on six assists this season – as many as Sergio Agüero, Alexis Sánchez and Son Heung-min. Aaron Cresswell was the only defender with more (seven).
4) Who to pick at wing-back?
If Southgate does play Walker in a three-man defence, he still has plenty of options at wing-back. Kieran Trippier, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Danny Rose and Ashley Young are all able to fulfil the duties required, with Fabian Delph also an option.
Who Southgate will select, though, is trickier to predict. Trippier has been an effective performer at right-back under Mauricio Pochettino, laying on five assists this season, but Alexander-Arnold’s good form for Liverpool is tough to overlook, even accounting for his lack of international experience – the 19-year-old has no senior caps and has only played three times for the Under 21s.
On the opposite flank, Rose was once an easy pick for England but injury problems have restricted him to just nine league starts for Tottenham this season. Meanwhile, Young has been brilliant for Manchester United this season and Harry Kane would enjoy his accurate crossing. All four are solid options so it will be intriguing to see who lines up for England in their first group game against Tunisia on 18 June.
5) Jesse Lingard or Dele Alli?
Further up the field in Southgate’s 3-4-2-1 formation, he boasts two players who have enjoyed superb seasons. Harry Kane hit 30 league goals for the first time in his career, while Raheem Sterling scored as many league goals this season (18) as he did in his whole Liverpool career. The dilemma for Southgate is who to play alongside Sterling in the other spot behind Kane.
The standout candidates are Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, who both enjoyed commendable campaigns. Lingard scored eight goals and set up five more in his finest season to date for Manchester United, while Alli, despite supposedly suffering an underwhelming campaign, scored nine and set up 10 to help Tottenham to a third-placed finish.
Alli’s fine partnership with Kane at a club level may give him an edge, but Lingard impressed for England in their friendlies in March, scoring the winning goal in the 1-0 win over the Netherlands and providing the assist for Jamie Vardy’s strike in the 1-1 draw with Italy. Whoever impresses against Nigeria and Costa Rica may be given the nod.