With a season to go until the World Cup Gareth Southgate has plenty to do. Here’s the key things he chronologically needs to sort out before the World Cup.
- Pick a captain. The importance of the captaincy is of course massively overstated, it seems to be important to some of the press and fans (expect Five Live phone-ins to be lit up with black and white cab drivers insisting it’s the biggest decision the manager will ever make) but ask any player or anyone associated with football outside of England and they’ll say it’s not important. However it’s daft to have Wayne Rooney; a player not currently in the squad listed as captain. Harry Kane appears the most likely option as the current Tottenham captain and one of only 2 players guaranteed a place in the side (the other being club mate Dele Alli). Southgate can save himself a lot of grief in the press by picking his captain before the Malta game this September.
- Qualify. Obvious and the absolute minimum requirement for an England manager as Steve McClaren, Graham Taylor and even Sir Alf could all testify. England’s remaining away games are against the two weakest sides in their group (Malta & Lithuania) whilst the only sides who could realistically beat England to top spot (Slovakia & Slovenia) both have to visit to Wembley. If England win both their games this September they may find themselves needing only a point from the two October games (Slovenia Lithuania) to ensure qualification. Given the issues to resolve within the team before the World Cup Southgate would benefit from using the final qualifiers as glorified friendlies. England really need to avoid the playoffs given the at least two from Italy, Spain, France, Holland & Sweden will be there with the likes of Croatia, Portugal and Ireland currently sitting second in their qualifying groups.
- Decide on a number one. Joe Hart’s tenure as automatic first choice goalkeeper is surely over despite Southgate public backing his man. England have two highly talented young keepers in Jordan Pickford & Jack Butland but neither has played a Champions League game (although Pickford will play in the Europa League this season) and 4 caps between them (all Butland’s). Southgate’s problem is he has to choose between these 2 players quickly in order to give one of them enough caps before the World Cup. Fraser Forster and Tom Heaton complete England’s current complement of ‘keepers, the number one will be largely decided by club form but Southgate has to get it right.
- Find a centre back pairing. England has struggled in central defence at their last two tournaments, Southgate needs to find the right combination for a back 4 and preferred trio when flexed to a 3-4-3 formation. At present Gary Cahill is the only guaranteed a place even in the England squad despite ongoing concerns over his international pedigree. John Stones is a hugely talented playmaker but needs a much improved second season at Manchester City whilst Michael Keane made a good start to his England career but must adapt to a new team at Everton. Chris Smalling & Phil Jones appear to be fading down the Manchester United pecking order, England under 21 trio Callum Chamber, Alfie Mawson & Rob Holding will all press their claims and Harry Maguire may come into the equation following his move to Leicester. England have plenty of options but must blood combinations that will work.
- Central Midfield conundrum. England’s central midfield places look wide open. Only holding midfielder Eric Dier and the often injured linkman Jordan Henderson look squad certainties. The other veteran options are Jack Wilshere (perma-crock), Fabian Delph (Man City B team), Michael Carrick (turns 37 next July), Jake Livermore & Danny Drinkwater (neither international class) whilst Southgate clearly doesn’t trust Ross Barkley. That may lead Southgate to look at his youth options: James Ward-Prowse, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Cook, Will Hughes, Tom Davies & Harry Winks are all possibilities but all will need to get regular starts for their clubs and take their chances when they come. At the moment it’s anybody’s guess who will make it.
- Promoting Youth. Unlike 2006 or 2010 when players were more or less guaranteed places year in advance this squad will likely contain surprises. I’ve mentioned numerous young options above in England’s problem positions, however I’d estimate only 10-14 players are locked into the squad, that leaves plenty of opportunity for up and coming talents, especially with a former Under 21s manager now in charge. Kieran Trippier, Nathan Redmond, Demarai Gray, Tammy Abraham & Dominic Solanke lead a lengthy list of young players who may just breakthrough the International glass ceiling.