As the curtain comes down on the final international break of 2018, England fans can be filled with a sense of optimism. A World Cup campaign that exceeded all expectations has been followed by qualification in style for the UEFA Nations League finals. The average age of the latest England squad was 23.79 and Gareth Southgate’s young side overcame a Croatia side with vast experience, leading Croatia manager Zlatko Dalić to state “it’s coming home very soon”. So, just how good is this England side and how far can they go?
England National Team: The World at Their Feet
Following the demise of Joe Hart within the national team set-up, there was an air of uncertainty as to who would take over the reigns in goal for England. In an attempt to find a successor, Gareth Southgate rotated Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford for a while, with little seemingly separating the pair. However, since the latter got the nod during the 2018 World Cup, Pickford has established himself as England’s undisputed number one.
Pickford’s sharp reflexes and far-superior distribution currently has him way out in front of any of his competitors. The Everton man is also aided by the fact that Butland now plays in the Championship with Stoke City, and Nick Pope, third in line to the England goalkeeping throne, sustained a dislocated shoulder in August. However, whilst both Butland and Pope are able deputies, the importance of Pickford to the way in which England play under Southgate ensures any threat to his number one jersey is minimal.
In Pope’s absence, Southampton’s Alex McCarthy and Fulham’s Marcus Bettinelli have made recent England squads, whilst England under-21 keepers Angus Gunn and Dean Henderson are tipped as exciting prospects. Although, as Pickford is still only 24-years-old, don’t expect to see much of anyone else between the sticks for the foreseeable future.
Have England finally discovered adequate successors for the long-since departed John Terry and Rio Ferdinand? It would certainly seem as if they’re getting there. Whilst the likes of Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones have always represented their country admirably in terms of effort and industry, they’ve certainly lacked that quality that has separated them from the dominant centre-backs of international football. Subsequently, England have always been found wanting defensively.
In Joe Gomez, John Stones and Harry Maguire, though, Gareth Southgate now has three centre-backs with unbounded potential, but more importantly, current ability. All three share similar defensive characteristics but, crucially for Southgate, the trio are all wonderfully efficient with the ball at their feet. It’s an attribute Southgate demands of his centre-backs and, in Stones and Maguire particularly, he has two of the Premier League’s most comfortable ball-playing centre-backs at his disposal.
The emergence of Gomez at Liverpool this season will also provide Southgate with a selection headache, especially if he perseveres with a system that operates with a back four. It’s a nice headache to have, and Gomez’s rise to prominence does offer Southgate tactical versatility. England now possess the ability to switch seamlessly between systems that incorporate two and three centre backs.
Southgate’s first-choice trio are pretty much set in stone, but the Three Lions manager does still have other options available to him, too. Michael Keane and Lewis Dunk have been rewarded for their recent club form with call-ups. More recently, there have also been calls for Chris Smalling, Jamaal Lascelles and Wolves captain Connor Coady to be rewarded for their club form, too.
It’s difficult to remember an England generation with so many genuine options at full-back. Gone are the days where England squads only really included one specialist full-back on either side. Now there are English full-backs who can be genuinely disappointed if they’re not in the starting eleven, let alone the squad. Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose are two notable players who are out of the reckoning currently, whilst Ashley Young’s brief international cameo at full-back does also appear to be at an end.
The Three Lions’ right-back slot is particularly intriguing. Southgate currently has three players who would probably start in most international sides vying for the sole starting berth. Those three are Kyle Walker, Kieren Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Trippier and Walker are Southgate’s tried and tested pair, and such is the quality of both players, Southgate opted to start both in a 5-3-2 formation during England’s route to the semi-finals in Russia. However, in a system that reverts back to a classic back four, there is only room for one and, in truth, both players offer very different dimensions to England’s style of play. Trippier is arguably better in offensive areas where his delivery and dead-ball expertise set him apart, whereas Walker’s sheer pace and vast experience makes the Manchester City man a safer choice against better opposition. The rapid ascension of Alexander-Arnold has uncovered a player who appears to be the perfect portrayal of the modern-day full-back, although regular England starts may have to wait for a few more years yet.
Who occupies the role on the left is a little less straightforward. Danny Rose’s continued injury woes and Ryan Bertrand’s recent exclusion has resulted in questions marks over who will take the number three on matchdays. However, if the recent fixtures against Croatia and the USA are anything to go by, it would seem that Ben Chilwell is Southgate’s preference. The Leicester youngster, who has now been capped by Southgate at under-21 and senior level, has enjoyed an impressive start to the season with his club and his form has meant a resurgent Luke Shaw has had to play second fiddle for England. Both Shaw and Chilwell share a similar attacking prowess, as is the norm with a Southgate full-back, and with Shaw and Chilwell only being 23 and 21 the battle to be the next Ashley Cole could prove to be a fascinating watch over the next few years.
A quick glance at the leading international sides across the world brings to light the need for a world-class centre-midfielder, or two. France have Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, Belgium have Kevin De Bruyne, Spain have Sergio Busquets and Isco and Croatia have Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. The list of international sides with top-drawer midfielders could go on; yet there is a feeling that England are one side who are lacking in this area.
Whilst the likes of Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Harry Winks and Fabian Delph provide a level of industry and grittiness, their contribution doesn’t stretch to the same lengths of a Kanté or a Modrić. The same applies to England’s more creative midfielders. Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkely perform a difficult role in a high-energy England side but, despite their best efforts, England’s attacking weapons are, at times, starved of a level of service you’d be guaranteed by an Isco or a Pogba. There is no doubt that England’s centre-midfield options are considered good in the grand scheme of things, but there is definitely an absence of a world-class talent that would propel Southgate’s side to the next level.
Encouragingly for Southgate and England though, there are a host of Young Lions looking to make their mark. James Maddison, Mason Mount and Phil Foden are the youngsters breaking through who are tipped for great things. Foden and Mount especially are the most highly revered, and Southgate will be hoping that they can blossom into the world-class creative spark England needs. The return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from long-term injury will also be a welcome boost for Southgate.
For once, England have an abundance of pace and quality in wide positions. In the past, England’s wingers have either had one or the other; pace or technical ability but the options Gareth Southgate now has are arguably unrivalled within England squads of yesteryear.
Throughout World Cup qualifying and then the World Cup itself, Harry Kane was labeled as England’s only real world-class talent. Raheem Sterling can be added to that list now. Under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage at Manchester City, the former Liverpool winger has been a goal-scoring revolution in the Premier League and his performances for his club side are starting to translate onto the field for the national team, too. It’s a frightening prospect for England’s opposition, a prospect that is made even more frightening when the strength of England’s opposite flank is also considered.
Marcus Rashford appeared a shoe-in for England’s remaining spot in a deadly front three, but the emergence of Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund has thrown a spanner in the works. The tricky winger has taken the Bundesliga by storm this season, contributing four goals and six assists in only 544 minutes of football and Southgate has sat-up and taken notice. Sancho, only 18-years-old, has been involved in three of England’s last four fixtures as he looks to force himself in front of Rashford in Southgate’s thinking.
Similarly to Sancho, Reiss Nelson is enjoying his time in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim. The Arsenal loanee is getting rave reviews in Germany and Nelson now has two goals in two appearances for the England under-21 side as well, including a sumptuous free-kick against Scotland. Another talented winger Gareth Southgate will be monitoring over the course of the season.
One thing that has always been a constant through the years in England camps is the presence of a world-class striker. Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney have all come before, and now it is the turn of Harry Kane. The England captain acts as the focal point in attack for England and, in recent months, his ability to both score and create has been showcased. Against Spain it was Kane’s lofted through balls that set England on their way to a memorable win in Madrid and against Croatia on Sunday it was his late winner that sent the Three Lions through to the finals of the UEFA Nations League next summer.
The danger for Southgate is that his England side becomes too reliant on Kane. In a similar situation to that of ‘keeper Jordan Pickford, there isn’t an English alternative that can perform at the same level as Kane. In essence, an injury to Kane would, on paper, be catastrophic.
The combination of Jamie Vardy’s decision to effectively end his international career and Danny Welbeck’s serious ankle injury leaves Marcus Rashford as the one alternative with any sort of international experience, and the 21-year-old only has 31 caps to his name. That will come as a worry to Southgate, but there are options out there for the England boss.
Bounemouth’s Callum Wilson scored on his England debut last week and he will certainly be an important figure in England squads to come. Dominic Solanke, who does have a sole senior cap, has scored four in his last two U21 outings and the Liverpool man would offer a more physical presence up front. And, much like Solanke, so would Glenn Murray. The veteran forward’s name has been at the forefront of much debate regarding international football and if Murray continues his scoring form, a call-up may not be completely out of the question given Southgate’s limited options.
What Does The Future Hold?
What is clear is that the future of English international football is undoubtedly bright. England now have a manager at the helm who is as respected by the fans, as he is by the talented pool of players he has to choose from. This young and exciting side now has an identity and an aura about them that will certainly unnerve some of international football’s top dogs. However, the lack of a world-class talent in midfield and an adequate alternative to Harry Kane could be a stumbling block when challenging for trophies. So, any talk of football coming home is probably a little premature as of now, but at the same time there are no bounds to what this England squad could achieve under Southgate.