How can Maguire be a starter? Should he leave Trent at home? And is it time to finally unleash Bellingham? The questions Southgate MUST answer as he faces a blighted World Cup countdown
- Preparation leading up to the winter tournament has not been ideal for England
- Gareth Southgate is facing a number of headaches just weeks out from start
- Issues remain at almost every area of the pitch with little time to resolve them
- Sportsmail assesses the issues currently faced and the potential solutions
- Click here for all the latest World Cup 2022 news and updates
Nine weeks out from the World Cup and the problems are mounting up for England manager Gareth Southgate.
Injuries, a lack of playing time at club level for key players and no recognised understudy to Harry Kane are issues threatening to blight England’s preparations.
Ahead of the double header against Italy and Germany, Sportsmail examines the headaches Southgate is facing.
The England boss is facing a number of headaches just weeks out from the start of Qatar 2022
What if Pickford is still injured?
In terms of knowing his first choice, goalkeeper is not an area causing Southgate much concern. Jordan Pickford is his undisputed No 1.
However, the Everton man’s unavailability due to a thigh injury for the final two matches before the tournament accentuates a niggling issue. What if Pickford is out? There is no obvious candidate to replace him.
Nick Pope, Aaron Ramsdale and Dean Henderson, who are the three in the squad this week, have a total of 12 caps between them compared to Pickford’s 45.
Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has proven doubters wrong to establish himself as the definite first choice – but his fitness is a concern
Aaron Ramsdale could stake a claim to the England No.1 jersey if Pickford is injured
Elsewhere, Brazil No 2 Ederson has 18 caps while first-choice Alisson has 55. Germany’s recognised No 1 keeper Manuel Neuer has 116 caps compared to second in-line Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s 28.
The Nations League matches will provide Pope and Ramsdale an opportunity to stake their claim as Pickford’s understudy.
Don’t be surprised to see both given an opportunity over the next week. Henderson, the beneficiary of Pickford’s omission, is likely to need an injury if he is to stand a chance of making the plane.
How can Maguire be in starting XI?
There is no ambiguity over who Southgate views as his two strongest centre backs: Harry Maguire and John Stones. Stones is playing regularly at Manchester City and that will come as a huge relief to the England manager.
Maguire, however, is finding life increasingly difficult under new Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag.
Since being dropped for the game against Liverpool four weeks ago, Maguire has played just 10 minutes in the Premier League.
He was given a start in the Europa League against Real Sociedad — a game United lost — but kept on the bench until the final minute against Moldovan side FC Sheriff last week.
Maguire’s prospects of getting back into the United team appear remote. The 29-year-old was name-checked by Southgate last week as he revealed his fears over England’s chances in Qatar due to a lack of first-team action for some of his stars.
Harry Maguire’s lack of action for Manchester United gives Southgate another headache
The only way Maguire’s predicament is likely to change is through injury to other United players.
That leaves Southgate in a tight spot. The England manager has stressed on numerous occasions that his players should be involved regularly at club level if they are to make his squad.
There are exceptions for particular members and Maguire falls into that category. Will he make the World Cup squad if his peripheral club role continues? Probably, yes. Starting him, however, is harder to justify.
Eric Dier’s revival should ease Southgate’s concerns. The Tottenham defender is in the form of his career at centre half and that, coupled with his major tournament experience, should be a factor.
Southgate is known to be a big fan of Marc Guehi but the Crystal Palace defender, Fikayo Tomori and Conor Coady have no experience of playing in a major senior international tournament.
Coady was selected for the Euro 2020 squad but did not play a single minute.
Eric Dier’s revival could ease some the questions Southgate is facing prior to the tournament
Should he leave Alexander-Arnold at home?
We Have had all the jokes about Southgate selecting a squad full of right backs — but at this stage it is no longer a laughing matter. Kyle Walker is a certainty and if England play with a four-man defence the Manchester City man starts at right back.
If Southgate switches to a back-three, then Walker plays alongside Stones and one other in the heart of defence, with Reece James likely to play at right wing-back.
The Chelsea man’s versatility is a major bonus for Southgate, James can also play at right back and central defence. Walker and James as right-sided defensive options would usually suffice. But that would mean leaving Trent Alexander-Arnold behind.
Can Trent Alexander-Arnold be trusted defensively by Southgate against top opposition?
The fact England can select 26 rather than the usual 23 players means Southgate can accommodate three right backs — but is that a waste of a slot, particularly when Kieran Trippier can play on either flank?
Southgate appears to need convincing about Alexander-Arnold. His ability going forward is unquestionable, but Southgate seems unsure about the Liverpool star’s defensive capabilities. That leaves Alexander-Arnold vulnerable.
It is no clearer at left back either. In normal circumstances Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell would be selected. Neither is playing regularly at club level but in contrast to right back, there are not many other options.
The fact an alternative was not selected in this squad suggests no one is in the running to make a late World Cup bid, although Brentford’s Rico Henry is understood to have impressed England staff, while Tyrick Mitchell, having been called up last season, remains on the radar.
Will he finally unleash Jude Bellingham?
Regardless of whether Southgate deploys a three-man or two-man midfield, Declan Rice is the only certainty to be selected. Southgate places immense value on the West Ham star but who plays next to him is up for debate.
In normal circumstances you would imagine Kalvin Phillips would feature but he will today withdraw from the squad and is set to have surgery to cure a shoulder complaint that has been dogging the midfielder for more than 12 months.
England are confident Phillips will recover in time but he may not be a guaranteed starter in Qatar.
Perhaps the biggest quandary of all for Southgate is whether to finally unleash Jude Bellingham. For many, the Borussia Dortmund teenager should be one of the first names on the team-sheet. It is hard to disagree as he is a phenomenal footballer.
Jude Bellingham has been ever-present for Borussia Dortmund and could finally be unleashed
Southgate is a lot more cautious. He has been criticised for that — which is nonsense given England finished fourth at the 2018 World Cup and second at Euros 2020 — but surely it is time to thrust Bellingham into his starting XI.
The decision could be made easier if Phillips is not fit. It will be interesting to see if Southgate feels the same, or if he reverts to the experience of Jordan Henderson.
If Southgate uses a three-man midfield, Mason Mount has a good chance of playing. Southgate loves the Chelsea star’s defensive discipline. Mount receives his fair share of criticism but the 23-year-old carries out Southgate’s instructions to a tee — a manager’s dream.
Where’s the back-up to Kane?
All being well, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden will lead England’s attack. In wide attacking areas, England are well blessed: Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka all have genuine cases to start England’s opener against Iran on November 21.
If Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho continue their promising starts to the season, they could come into the equation, too.
But England’s centre forward options behind Kane continues to be a major problem. Ivan Toney, who was handed his first international call-up last week, has the opportunity to force his way into Southgate’s World Cup party.
He will almost certainly be handed his debut in the forthcoming games and an impressive showing could see the Brentford striker propel himself into a position where he is viewed as Kane’s No 2.
England have plentiful forward options but no obvious back up to first choice Harry Kane
Ivan Toney became the first Brentford player since 1939 to be selected for an England squad
Tammy Abraham’s impressive stint in Italy playing for Roma has seen him recalled in recent months, but the fact he played just 65 minutes in England’s four summer internationals suggests Southgate still needs convincing that he is an alternative to Kane.
With that in mind, Rashford’s ability to offer something different playing through the middle, while also being able to play wide, is likely to be considered when Southgate makes the final decisions over his World Cup squad.
The Manchester United star was close to being recalled for the next two fixtures but a muscular injury prevented his inclusion.
Marcus Rashford was close to returning to the England squad but muscular injury prevented it
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