The situation is hardly ideal for Gareth Southgate as he prepares England for this summers’s European Championship. This coming week, which features three qualifiers for the next international tournament - the World Cup of 2022, is the last chance the England manager will get a first-hand viewing of his charges before he names his tournament squad.
The upcoming games against San Marino, at Wembley on Thursday, away to Albania, on Sunday, and at home to Poland, next Wednesday, will not be overly taxing on England, and there is a debate to be had whether the standard of the games will actually prove beneficial in Southgate’s quest to fall upon his starting XI for when Croatia come to town in the first game of the Euros.
Absentees aplenty make task trickier
Southgate’s overriding problem, however, is that his squad for this international break is severely weakened. It was to be expected given this unrelenting and draining season is reaching its climax. There are 10 players who have been ruled out through injury and Marcus Rashford is in camp but still nursing his shoulder complaint.
Such a revolving door in terms of personnel throws Southgate’s preparation plans up in the air. A few months out before the start of a major tournament, a national team coach would be expected to have his starting XI more or less nailed down, along with a few variations up his sleeve for certain opponents and styles.
The overall options that Southgate has available have been duly noted, especially in forward areas, although central midfield is an area of slight concern. Ever since England reached the World Cup semi finals in 2018, Southgate has tinkered with formations and players. There was a deviation from the 3-4-3 system, which was used in Russia, during the autumn after the tournament and the 4-2-3-1 formation brought a promising result against Spain in Sevilla.
However, Southgate has since reverted back to the 3-4-3 during the past 18 months and, despite suggesting that he may give the 4-2-3-1 another try, it seems likely that the three-man defence will be the way to go in the summer. Whether that stifles England’s creativity or not, the manager seems to prefer it.
That Southgate is thinking on his feet should be applauded. He is not set in his ways, he is willing to give players a chance, selects on form and rarely settles for second best. This next week will not be as useful as the England manager would have hoped for, however, and so he will be selecting his tournament squad somewhat blindly in May.
Relationships must be built on training pitch
Jordan Pickford is absent from this squad due to an abdominal muscle injury thus providing Nick Pope, who has made one competitive senior appearance so far, a run of three games in the No.1 shirt. The debate seems to never stop surrounding Pickford as England’s first-choice ‘keeper but he has never let Southgate down and so will be expecting his starting berth back come June.
Jordan Henderson, Joe Gomez, Jadon Sancho, Harvey Barnes, Danny Ings, James Maddison, Jack Grealish, Tammy Abraham and Callum Wilson are all missing too. Jude Bellingham only just about made the squad after Germany relaxed some of it’s quarantine rules allowing Borussia Dortmund to release the 17-year-old without the need for him to isolate on his return to the Rhine.
Returning faces. New call-ups.— England (@England) March 22, 2021
Great to have you with us, lads 👋 pic.twitter.com/4E1FoTUNuV
At face value, at least, Southgate’s options may have been diminished, but the delay of the tournament and the current injuries have allowed some players to play their way in to the squad. John Stones and Luke Shaw return having found a level of high consistency in the defences of Manchester City and Manchester United respectively.
However, there has also been instances of players playing themselves out of the squad. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s form has dipped this season in tandem with Liverpool’s, but still his statistics highlight a full-back who can function at the top of the game. Southgate, though, has never seemed to fully trust the 22-year-old’s defending and so he has been dropped this time.
So has Harry Winks of Tottenham Hotspur, while fellow full-backs Matty Cash and Luke Ayling were both unlucky to miss out on their first call-ups after fine seasons with Aston Villa and Leeds United respectively. Patrick Bamford, Michael Keane, James Tarkowski and Ben Mee may also feel hard done by.
Decisions for Southgate to make
There is therefore plenty for Southgate to mull over and, in a strange way, training may prove more beneficial than the three matches over the next week. But still it will be difficult for the England manager to fully piece together his first-choice lineup, ensured the relationships that need to exist across the pitch are built and determine which combinations work best.
If Southgate is to field an inexperienced XI then it will be against San Marino in the first qualifier that he will do so. James Ward-Prowse and Dominic Calvert-Lewin are likely to start but there is little point in giving Dean Henderson a run out ahead of Pope as whoever is in goal is unlikely to make a notable save against the nation ranked 210th by FIFA.
Also, should Southgate experiment by deploying Mason Mount in a deeper midfield position alongside Declan Rice, then again his findings will have to be taken with a pinch of salt because England are going to completely dominate the ball anyway against San Marino and the true tests of the role will not be dished out.
Questions aplenty but little time to answer them - doesn’t it always seem to be this way? England have just five games, including pre-tournament friendlies with Austria and Romania, prior to the big kick-off. Southgate would have wanted to get a clearer picture of how his England will look come June, instead he must simply make-do-and-mend with what he’s been given.