The two international friendlies that make up England’s latest get-together are of the low-key nature that could simply lead to this international break being played under the radar. However, given that this is the first of three more national team meetings before the World Cup begins in November, it represents a key part of England’s preparations.
Of course, there will be the usual train of substitutes that feature in international friendlies but, nevertheless the games at Wembley against Switzerland on Saturday and Ivory Coast on Tuesday are key staging posts before Qatar.
Gareth Southgate will have earmarked these two fixtures as the chance to experiment a few things, having only achieved qualification to the World Cup in the last international break and with competitive Nations League meetings forming their next meet-up in June.
In calling up Trent-Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Aaron Ramsdale and Tammy Abraham in the first instance, Southgate planned for them to play big roles over this coming week. However, a spate of withdrawals from the squad has led to Southgate drafting in a handful of players yet to earn their first cap along with Fraser Forster, who last featured for England in 2016.
Still, England only have eight matches before the World Cup starts and there is little time for Southgate to waste if he is to oversee the development that has run through England’s last two tournament appearances: a semi-final appearance in Russia in 2018 and runners-up in last summer’s European Championship.
First-time full backs
Naturally given the call-ups that Southgate has been forced into, there will be debuts handed out when England take to the field against Switzerland and Ivory Coast. Tyrick Mitchell, the Crystal Palace full back, has described his first senior squad call-up as “a dream come true” and joins club-mate Marc Guehi as part of England’s full back options.
Southampton’s Kyle Walker-Peters has also been drafted in for the first time and will get minutes over the next few days, but realistically the chances of any of the trio making Southgate’s World Cup squad are slim. Such is the richness of England’s full back options that a team of them could be laid out.
With squad members Emile Smith Rowe and Conor Gallagher having both been blooded in during the last international break, Southgate has plenty of players around the camp who he is still getting to know.
Pickford still England’s No.1
The plan had been for Southgate to rotate his goalkeepers this week with Jordan Pickford rightly still considered England’s No.1. Ramsdale has had a good season with Arsenal, keeping 12 clean sheets in the Premier League, and donning the England goalkeeping jersey for one of the friendlies would have allowed Pickford’s deputy crucial time behind defensive duo Harry Maguire and John Stones.
Along with Ramsdale’s withdrawal, West Bromwich Albion’s Sam Johnstone has also been forced to return to his club early. This leaves squad-regular Nick Pope and 34-year-old Forster as back-up ‘keepers. Although at least one of them will get minutes as Pickford will sit out one of the games, there is less insight to be gained than if Ramsdale or Johnstone had been there to stake a claim to Pickford’s spot.
Opportunity knocks for Watkins
One of the most pressing questions that this international break can still go some way to answering centres around the emergence of a deputy to Harry Kane. The mouth watered at the prospect of Abraham, reborn at Roma this season with a current goal tally of 23, having an opportunity to impress in front of a packed Wembley Stadium. But similarly, he has not reported due to injury.
Abraham will hope that his chance has not passed him by, but given his form in Serie A that appears unlikely. Nonetheless, Southgate must still get closer to working out his plan B in attack. There is a lot of pressure placed on captain Kane’s shoulders — and the Tottenham Hotspur striker has shown this season, and in the early stages of Euro 2020, that his productivity can dry up for spells. Not to mention the rather fatal blow that an injury to him would represent. Therefore, discovering a reliable understudy is paramount.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has been part of England’s most recent squads, joins Abraham on the sidelines and so opportunity knocks for Ollie Watkins. The Aston Villa forward scored on his England debut last year but has failed to add another in the subsequent four appearances. Gerrard’s arrival at Villa has improved Watkins’s confidence of late but still the 26-year-old has only managed two goals in his last 12 appearances.
Who goes best with Rice?
Another absentee is Kalvin Phillips who hasn’t featured for Leeds United since December 5. A key cog in England’s Euro 2020 team, Southgate must hope for the best and plan for the worst when it comes to his midfield.
Chances are that Phillips will be ready come Qatar, but the England manager must have options to call upon in regards to who partners Declan Rice. There were accusations that the Phillips-Rice partnership in England’s 4-2-3-1 was too defensive at times, particularly when playing against teams that defended deep, and so there’s every chance that Southgate might take a longer look at Jude Bellingham this week.