England made it four wins from four European Qualifiers, but how much closer is Gareth Southgate to identifying his best team? What are the selection dilemmas he still needs to solve before next summer’s tournament? And who would you pick?
England followed up Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of Bulgaria with a 5-3 win over Kosovo on Tuesday night, meaning they have scored the joint-most goals in qualifying with 19 from four games.
Southgate has described England’s free-scoring frontline as one of the most exciting in world football, but their defensive struggles at St Mary’s Stadium showed there are still questions to answer elsewhere in the side.
Who starts at centre-back?
Jordan Pickford has the No 1 spot nailed down and England have a wealth of full-back options, but centre-back remains a major headache for Southgate.
Harry Maguire and Michael Keane were largely untroubled against Bulgaria, but Southgate will be concerned that Kosovo, a side ranked 121st in the world, were able to cause them so many problems at St Mary’s.
Keane’s misplaced pass gifted Kosovo their opener, while Maguire was culpable for their third goal, fouling Vedat Muriqi in the box after his own failed clearance.
Southgate will be grateful for the return of John Stones, but he made a glaring error in the Nations League semi-final defeat to Netherlands in June and he is also struggling to hold down a starting spot at Manchester City.
England’s upcoming European Qualifiers
- Oct 11: Czech Republic (a)
- Oct 14: Bulgaria (a)
- Nov 14: Montenegro (h)
- Nov 17: Kosovo (a)
It’s a similar story for Joe Gomez, who has lost his place to Joel Matip at Liverpool. Could Southgate use England’s October and November qualifiers to trial Tyrone Mings? Could he go back to Brighton’s Lewis Dunk or Burnley’s James Tarkowski? He seems wedded to a back four, but at least one of the centre-back spots is still up for grabs.
Who’s in the midfield mix?
Southgate used the same midfield three against both Bulgaria and Kosovo, with Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley starting both games, but there is still plenty of debate over England’s best midfield.
Rice has excelled for West Ham and shown similar promise in many of his early appearances for England, but his loose pass in the build-up to Kosovo’s second goal on Tuesday night was a reminder that he is still learning.
Southgate does not have many alternatives for the holding role, but Harry Winks can perhaps count himself unfortunate not to have even made it off the bench against Bulgaria or Kosovo. Could his passing ability give England the kind of control they so often lack against top opposition? Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville described him as a “must” for England in the summer.
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Henderson and Barkley’s places are also the subject of scrutiny, especially with young creative talents such as Mason Mount and James Maddison waiting in the wings – not to mention Southgate favourite Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who is currently recovering from an injury at Chelsea.
England also have Dele Alli to come back from injury, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provides another alternative, and, if it’s creativity he’s after, Southgate might even be tempted to look at a wildcard such as Phil Foden.
England are well-stocked in attack. Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford tormented Bulgaria at Wembley on Saturday, and England were even more dangerous against Kosovo, when Jadon Sancho came into the team in place of Rashford and scored his first two international goals.
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Kane and Sterling’s places in the team are surely guaranteed, but Sancho and Rashford are not the only ones competing for the other spot in England’s attack. Southgate handed Callum Hudson-Odoi his senior debut in March and, while he is out with an injury at the moment, he is sure to be in the frame for the 23-man squad come the summer.