The World Cup draw has been made and England know their opponents for the groups stage at next year’s tournament. Gareth Southgate’s men will face off against Tunisia, Panama and Belgium.
The Three Lions will be relatively satisfied with their lot, having avoided many of the trickier sides from pots C and D, yet their Group G opponents still possess enough of a threat to keep England on their toes.
The order of the fixtures has also fallen in England’s favour, allowing Southgate’s men to first build momentum Tunisia and Panama before the sterner test of Roberto Martínez’s Belgium in the final group game.
Now that it’s all official, thoughts begin to turn to planning for the competition, and Southgate will already have a decent picture of what the bulk of his squad will look like.
And at Football Whispers, we’ve asked our writers to come up with their strongest England XI, explaining why their selection gives the Three Lions the best possible chance of a strong showing in Russia.
So, I’ve found myself falling into the trap of almost every England manager in the last 20 years by picking a system to suit my players rather than choosing the XI for my preferred formation, which ideally would have been 3-4-2-1.
But I couldn’t bring myself to drop one of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling or Dele Alli, despite the latter’s poor form this season.
The other dilemma I had was in midfield. England have long lacked a defensive midfielder with an excellent range of passing and drive, but after Nathaniel Chalobah’s move to Watford, I expected him to make a strong case for a surprise inclusion in the squad and potentially even the XI as Gareth Southgate is a huge fan.
He was on course after his call-up in August and almost certainly would have made his senior debut in September had injury not struck.
But in the mean-time, Harry Winks has shown he can impress for the national team and while I toyed with the rogue idea of choosing Chalobah and Winks, the XI might have been too short on experience and ‘steel’ in the team if there was no Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Gary Cahill or Joe Hart.
I’ve fallen out of love with the England team in recent years but the current crop of players intrigues me. There’s certainly plenty of young talent and several tough decisions to be made when it comes to team selection.
I’ve favoured younger players in Joe Gomez, John Stones and Harry Maguire who all fit the system perfectly. They’re all comfortable on the ball and can stride forward into midfield to create numerical superiority.
Kieran Trippier edges Kyle Walker at right wing-back because of his excellent delivery from wide areas while Danny Rose gets the nod on the opposite flank. Eric Dier is the anchor in midfield alongside the ball-playing Winks, who has proven himself capable against top level opposition in the Champions League.
Harry Kane is my striker but picking those behind him is tricky. Rashford is certainly an option, Adam Lallana, too. But I’ve gone for Alli and Sterling in the belief their pace, guile and work-rate would unlock defences.
The likes of Rashford, Jamie Vardy and perhaps Ruben Loftus-Cheek could be introduced if chasing a game.
Playing 3-4-2-1 gives the full-backs more freedom to attack. Walker and Rose could be two of England’s most dangerous weapons, so you want them to push forward.
Winks is developing into a top-class holding midfielder and should be pushing for the start, his ability to spray the ball wide will be crucial.
Sterling has been a revelation for Pep Guardiola, why not harness that talent and not push him out wide?
Let him partner with Alli just behind Kane. All three can swap positions and use their intelligence and movement to create chances.
None of the England goalkeepers convince me, but I’m not sure Hart deserves to be No.1 anymore so I’ve gone for Pickford in goal.
I wanted to go with three at the back, but I couldn’t find a way of fitting in the front line I wanted. If England start with Kane, Sterling, Alli and Rashford, it will scare most opponents.
Winks would be a gamble, but his performance at the Bernabéu showed he can do it on the biggest stage, and I think Dier would add solidity alongside him.
At the back, Cahill’s experience is needed for me, and Stones is the best centre-back in England at the moment. If Rose can find the form of last season, there’s no one better than him, while Walker is above Kieran Trippier at the moment in my opinion.
Southgate has shown himself to be slightly more experimental than most people thought since taking the England job. He’s been brave with his selections and his tactical decisions, and I think he should seriously consider a back three for Russia.
Hart has been shaky, so Pickford should be the No.1. In front of him, Stones should be the heart of the defence, occasionally stepping forward with the ball. To allow him this freedom, I’d have Dier and Maguire – two players who combine physical strength with technical ability – on either side of him.
Walker and Ryan Bertrand look to be the most incisive options as wing-backs. However, central midfield is a bit of a problem area. I don’t think England have enough quality to go for a three, so I’ll settle on a duet of Winks and Fabian Delph.
Up front, I’d pair the speed of Sterling with the intelligence of Alli behind Kane, who must lead the line on his own next summer.
Between the sticks, it was a toss-up between Butland and Pickford. Both are impressive young custodians, and while I plumped for the former, I could easily be persuaded to revise that decision on the evidence of form over the rest of the season.
At the back, I’ve gone with a three. I’ve been impressed with Dier when he’s been used as a middle centre-back for Tottenham Hotspur this term, sweeping up behind two ball-players, so that’s what I’ve attempted to recreate with Maguire and Stones given license to step out with the ball when appropriate.
I’m not great fan of Henderson, if I’m honest. I’ve been very impressed with Winks, but feel partnering him with Chalobah might be too much for their current experience levels, so the Liverpool man gets the nod (for now).
Up top, there’s no questioning Kane’s credentials, and Sterling is a man transformed under Guardiola.