LONDON - As the countdown to Russia 2018 begins, England head coach Gareth Southgate does not so much have a selection headache as a full-blown migraine. The fact is that too many England players either aren’t playing or aren’t playing well.
There are four matches before England’s World Cup campaign kicks off against Tunisia — the Netherlands in Amsterdam on Friday, Italy at Wembley next Tuesday; then Nigeria at Wembley on June 2 and Costa Rica at Leeds on June 7. In reality, it leaves Southgate three more matches — six hours — to decide on his 23 for Russia as the squad must be named by June 4.
Southgate usually oozes optimism — if your car was written off, he’d say it was a chance to buy a new one. Yet even Southgate will be worried that with the clock ticking the reality is he probably knows only one certain starter of his defensive unit.
The biggest problem is the goalkeeper. Southgate named four for the next two matches: Joe Hart, Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope. The best English goalkeeper this season has been Pope, who stepped in for the injured Tom Heaton soon after the start of the season and has been outstanding as Burnley pushes Arsenal for sixth place in the Premier League. Statistics claim Pope has not made an error that led directly to a goal. However, Pope has zero minutes of international experience and few countries go to a World Cup with a rookie ‘keeper.
Butland (six caps) almost has lumbago from picking the ball out of the Stoke net while Pickford (one cap) has not yet built on his early promise. Hart, with 75 caps, has been first choice for the last six years, but he has played only one league game since November for West Ham, where he is on loan from Manchester City and has been used mainly in cup matches.
Whether Southgate plans to give all four goalkeepers a half each in the next two matches remains to be seen, though he should make a decision on his starter sooner rather than later because of all the positions this is the one that requires most mental preparation. “The number one jersey is up for grabs,” said Southgate, who must wish it wasn’t.
The three who will play in front of Hart/Pope/Butland/Pickford is as clear as mud. John Stones is no longer first-choice for Manchester City, ditto Joe Gomez at Liverpool. Gary Cahill (who played in eight of the 10 qualifying games), Chris Smalling and Michael Keane have been ditched, which leaves Harry Maguire (Leicester, three caps), Alfie Mawson (Swansea, zero caps) and James Tarkowski (Burnley, zero caps). The too often injured Phil Jones — currently injured — is still in Southgate’s thoughts.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that, for one reason or another, England may have to start its first match in Russia with a defensive quartet with about 15 caps between them. Southgate has used 16 defenders during his time in charge, yet the search for his World Cup trio goes on with the World Cup three months away.
There is better news — it could hardly be worse — for the wing-back positions. Kyle Walker is having a good season for Manchester City and on the left, the reborn Ashley Young of Manchester United could get the nod ahead of Spurs’ Danny Rose.
The two holding midfielders will probably be Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson. While both are having OK seasons for Spurs and Liverpool respectively, they lack the creativity to go with their main job of ball-winning, which leaves England far too one-dimensional.
The playmakers will be Dele Alli and two others from Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Jesse Lingard. It .is a very open race.
In attack, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane (injured at the moment) are nailed on. Sterling has scored 18 goals for Manchester City this season, but has yet to reproduce that form consistently for England. Indeed, apart from Kane, England has struggled for goals, scoring only 21 goals in 14 matches under Southgate.
“We must score from other positions,” said Southgate, who has relied on Kane to get England out of trouble too often.
Yet another problem for Southgate, as if he doesn’t have enough, is whether to play Marcus Rashford and if so, where. Rashford has been less effective when used on the left by Manchester United and seems destined to be an impact substitute in Russia, though the 20-year-old remains a very useful go-to player. Ditto Leicester’s Jamie Vardy.
Worthy award recipients
The two names in the frame to be chosen the Players’ Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year are, inevitably, Mo Salah of Liverpool and Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne. As things stand, either would make a worthy recipient of one or both awards.
Yet pound-for-pound no player has had a better season than Manchester United’s David de Gea. With Manuel Neuer absent virtually all season, de Gea is generally accepted as the world’s best goalkeeper with the possible exception of Roma’s Brazil international Allison.
De Gea has been United’s Player of the Season four times in the past five years and this season he has been called upon to make more saves per match than any other time in that period. The problem for the Spain international is that he is so good his excellence has become taken for granted, it is almost accepted that he will be United’s savior when called upon. Also, goalkeepers tend not to win such national individual awards.
For all Salah’s goals and de Bruyne’s midfield mastery, de Gea’s level of performance has been alongside the best in the Premier League. However, he will probably have to make do with being United’s top player again because he is a goalkeeper.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.