England head into their four pre-World Cup friendlies with more questions than answers when it comes to who will make their final squad for this summer’s tournament.
At one point things were looking up. Harry Kane was firing in the goals for Tottenham Hotspur, John Stones looked positively regal at the back for Manchester City, and various full-backs were flying around the Premier League at full pelt assisting their respective teams on both sides of the game.
Then Stones suffered an injury and has struggled to return to Pep Guardiola’s team on a regular basis since his recovery. Kane has just picked up an injury of his own which will trouble him at the World Cup even if his ankle recovers sufficiently enough for him to take to the field.
On top of this there have been injuries to Daniel Sturridge, Tom Heaton, Nathaniel Clyne and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was new to the fold but looked like he would fill the gaping hole left by a lack of creativity and guile in England’s midfield.
Elsewhere, among the England relics, Gary Cahill plays as if he’s as old as John Terry, while Joe Hart is now arguably the worst English goalkeeper in the Premier League.
This immediately throws up two problem areas deep in the defence where these tournaments can often be won or, in England’s case, lost.
Three English centre-backs have played every minute of every game in the Premier League so far: Leicester’s Harry Maguire, Alfie Mawson of Swansea City, and Brighton & Hove Albion’s Lewis Dunk. Newcastle United’s Jamaal Lascelles, and James Tarkowski and Ben Mee, both of Burnley, have racked up more than 2,000 minutes each, with Bournemouth’s Steve Cook not far behind them.
Ben Gibson was called up for the friendly against France in June, and is playing regularly for a Middlesbrough side pushing for promotion from the Championship.
Of these players, only Maguire has been capped by England. His consistency for the Foxes has seen him go from a possible option at the back for Gareth Southgate to a player who will be disappointed not to start.
Cahill, Stones, Michael Keane, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were once considered to be integral parts of England’s defensive backbone but, with the exception of Stones, are now looking like they will struggle to make the side on form.
Add Joe Gomez to the mix and the usual faces could find it even more difficult to get a look in, and some could be left our of the squad altogether.
The Liverpool defender has been in and out of Klopp’s side, as Stones has been Guardiola’s, but the 20-year-old offers versatility having also played at right-back and would be the ideal option on the right of a back three – the formation Southgate used against Brazil, when Gomez was named man of the match.
Behind the defence Hart is looking increasingly distant from the England side, despite being restored to West Ham’s starting XI for Saturday’s crushing 3-0 defeat by Burnley – a game in which he made a glaring error on Ashley Barnes’ second goal.
To that end, Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford are among the leading candidates to take Hart’s place having impressed for Stoke and Everton respectively. However, the pair have not been without their flaws this season and have just seven caps between them.
Beyond them, Burnley’s Tom Heaton was looking like a good option until he suffered a dislocated shoulder in September. However, his replacement at club level, Nick Pope, has emerged as a competent understudy who could keep Heaton out of the team when he returns.
This then raises the question of Pope for England. If he’s good enough to replace an England international at club level, then he’s surely of the required quality to be given a chance in the national team himself.
It’s difficult to judge defenders and goalkeepers statistically. Teams with less quality, who are expected to be battling near the bottom of the table rather than the top, will always have a lot more defensive work to do, skewing the figures.
Despite Southgate’s desire to play a certain way with the ball, there will be occasions when England are under the cosh and some of this defensive nous will be useful.
Tarkowski, Dunk, and Mee are top of the league when it comes to blocking shots, with Dunk leading the way on 48 and the Burnley pair behind him with a combined total of 79 blocks.
Mee is also adept at blocking crosses and has also leads this group in clearances with 203 this season, while only two players have won more aerial duels this term than Tarkowski’s 118.
But the eye test is also there for all to see in terms of sustained performances and defensive ability. Southgate now needs to find which of this will suit his style the best, which may involve a look a their passing ability as much as their defensive skill which, again, can be difficult to judge using statistics alone due to the style of their current club sides.
All of the players mentioned fare badly when it comes to pass accuracy as a lot of their time will be spent clearing balls or looking for long hopeful passes to a striker. Mawson is the best of this bunch with 82 per cent of his passes finding their target. He also leads the way with long passes, with 59 per cent success in this area.
As well as Gomez, another young player who may be deserving of a chance is Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon. By the World Cup the left-sided sensation will have just turned 18, and he’d offer an attacking threat from the back as well as being able to fill in further forward.
He’s definitely good enough on form and is reportedly a Tottenham Hotspur transfer target, but the question remains whether a player so young will be trusted to take part in a high-pressure international tournament. He’s taken everything in his stride during his rise so far, though.
Further forward it’s easier to start looking at statistics and production as a measure of quality, even though this can still be affected by style and quality of team-mates.
Glenn Murray‘s performances in a Brighton side who currently sit in mid-table, much further away from the relegation zone than many would have predicted at the start of the season, have not gone unnoticed.
With Andy Carroll out injured, the fabled England Plan B could mean an unexpected call up for Murray, or Burnley’s Barnes, though the latter has represented Austria at under-20 level and is, reportedly, in line for a first senior call-up.
While they’re not Emile Heskey or Carroll, they are alternatives to what already exists. Under-20 World Cup winner Dominic Solanke was introduced to the senior setup for the most recent squad, but he’s barely played at Liverpool.
Given the state of the pool of players available to him there will definitely be some surprises in the groups selected for these upcoming friendlies.
It’s up to these new faces to impress on international duty, continue their for with their club, and then they may have an outside chance of being on the plane to Russia this summer.