Gareth Southgate has shown himself, as a manager, to be bold with selection decisions. During his short time in charge of the England national team he has been unafraid to drop more experienced players in favour of the untested and the inexperienced. His latest squad acts as evidence of this.
Among those called up for the Three Lions’ upcoming friendly matches against Germany and Brazil were four players without a single senior international cap between them. They included Swansea City hitman Tammy Abraham, Burnley midfielder Jack Cork, Liverpool defender Joe Gomez and Crystal Palace playmaker Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Southgate has a fairly fluid approach to selection, confirming as much recently by saying: “I don’t think anybody can sit and safely think they’re going to be involved next summer.” As a result, the door to the England squad remains open to newcomers even as the 2018 World Cup draws closer.
Here we assess the chances each of his four newest call-ups have of being involved next summer.
Southgate has tended to prefer operating with a lone striker within a 4-2-3-1 system during his time as England manager, and this preference is unlikely to erode prior to the World Cup. While he may experiment with alternatives, this formation will be his go-to.
Reported Real Madrid transfer target Harry Kane is the obvious option to lead the line alone. With his combination of strength, underrated speed, technique and clinical finishing, he has the requisite qualities to both make and take chances. However, beyond the Tottenham Hotspur man there is a shortfall of genuine centre-forward options.
Standing at 6ft 3in, Abraham is a tall and strong targetman who is extremely difficult to dispossess. His control belies his frame, and he is aggressive on the ball. Undoubtedly, there are improvements for him to make technically and tactically, but four goals in 11 Premier League outings for a profligate Swansea side is impressive.
Marcus Rashford is seen as England’s star of the future in some quarters, though the Manchester United attacker has often been used on the wing at both club and international level. Meanwhile, Jamie Vardy prefers getting in behind defences to linking play, while Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge have both struggled with injuries and consistency of late.
All of this means Abraham has a window of opportunity to gate-crash England’s squad for next summer. And, considering the supply he receives at Swansea can’t possibly get any worse, expect him to score more, boosting his confidence ahead of the World Cup.
Burnley’s surprising rise up the Premier League table this season has been primarily down to an exceptional defence. Only Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham have conceded fewer than their nine goals against so far. Sean Dyche deserves immense credit for fostering such organisation, though some individuals are also worthy of praise.
Cork is one such player. Having joined the club from Swansea in the summer, he seemed destined for a career spent lingering in the lower echelons of the English top flight. However, he has established himself as a key man within a competitive unit.
The former Chelsea youth teamer has always been blessed with efficient passing and a good positional sense. Both traits make him tactically suited to Southgate’s double pivot within the 4-2-3-1 system. However, competition for places is intense, with Eric Dier, Harry Winks, Jordan Henderson, Fabian Delph, Nathaniel Chalobah and Jake Livermore among those fighting for a squad berth in this role.
Cork will struggle to move beyond many of those established names and talented youngsters. At 28 he is no prospect, and it is far from certain that he and Burnley can maintain their current form until the end of the season. As a result, it would be a surprise to see him on the plane to Russia.
Gomez is perhaps the most versatile defender available to England, which substantially bolsters his prospects of going to a major international tournament, where countries can only take 23 players, down the line.
Initially a centre-back, the 20-year-old was utilised as a makeshift left-back when he first arrived at Liverpool. He impressed in the role, particularly considering he is a natural right-footer. And this season he has ticked off another position, playing at right-back.
The fact that Gomez could theoretically offer Southgate cover in all four of his defensive positions is a huge plus, though his flexibility could also count against him.
Too conservative a full-back to offer the forward forays and final third play that Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier are capable of, he is also too inexperienced as a top-level centre-back to threaten John Stones, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Michael Keane and Harry Maguire.
Gomez is a talented young utility man, though the presence of Nathaniel Clyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold ensures he will always be under pressure to maintain his right-back spot at club level. If he is unable to maintain regular football until the end of the season, the 2018 World Cup could come too soon.
England’s lack of true No.10s is a problem, especially considering Southgate’s 4-2-3-1 preference. Dele Alli’s movement, awareness, finishing and aerial strength make him the obvious candidate for the role, though beyond him only Adam Lallana has the control and passing ability to back him up.
While Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and one-time Chelsea transfer target Ross Barkley are decent contenders, none of the three are ideal. The former prefers to operate on the wing, where his pace and skill can be maximised in 1v1 situations, while the latter two have found consistent performances hard to come by lately.
Southgate may well have breathed a sigh of relief, therefore, when he saw Loftus-Cheek move on loan to Crystal Palace at the start of the season. The 21-year-old has appeared infrequently for his parent club Chelsea but he needed more time on the pitch to showcase his talent, and he has received just that at Selhurst Park.
Despite playing in a faltering team currently adrift at the bottom of the Premier League table, the playmaker has wowed onlookers with technically assured displays. His combination of physical strength and ball control make him a viable candidate to back up Alli and Lallana next summer as England’s second- or third-choice No.10.