Form, formation and Foden: big issues facing Southgate before World Cup

Players struggling at club level

Gareth Southgate risks running into problems if he picks players on reputation rather than form. England’s manager has argued that he is right to consider international performances when he selects a squad, yet with several key individuals struggling at club level it will be how interesting to see how far Southgate’s loyal streak goes before the World Cup.

There are problems across the board. At left-back there is concern over Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell, who has recently returned from a serious knee injury, and Luke Shaw, who has lost his place at Manchester United. In midfield Kalvin Phillips, missing from this camp with a shoulder problem, has barely played since joining Manchester City. Further forward Mason Mount is going through a dip at Chelsea and Jarrod Bowen has been underwhelming for West Ham this season. Is Bowen really a better bet than Jadon Sancho?

Then there’s Harry Maguire. The United centre-back presents Southgate with his biggest conundrum. Will he follow Erik ten Hag’s lead and drop him? United have been far more solid without Maguire and there is no justification for Southgate starting him if he is not playing for his club. Fikayo Tomori is playing every week for Milan, who won Serie A last season, and Eric Dier has excelled for Tottenham.

Three or four at the back?

England’s disastrous start to their Nations League campaign could spook Southgate into becoming even more pragmatic. The memory of Hungary running riot at Molineux remains raw and it would not be a surprise if England line up in a 3-4-3 when they play Italy on Friday and Germany on Monday.

Yet much would depend on how Southgate sets up the team. Reece James and Chilwell would be progressive options as the wing-backs. A fluid front three could be exciting. An attacking partner for Declan Rice in midfield could be a game-changer.

The concern, though, is that Southgate veers towards negativity. Perhaps England lack the centre-backs to play a 4-3-3, but the argument against caution is that they are hardly short of creative players. Is it time they played to their strengths?

Ben Chilwell (left) and Reece James at an England training session last year. They would be progressive choices at wing-back.
Ben Chilwell (left) and Reece James at an England training session last year. They would be progressive choices at wing-back. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Make a decision on Alexander-Arnold

Trent Alexander-Arnold is a brilliant footballer. His crossing his astonishing, his passing range is superb and he is regularly one of Liverpool’s best creators. None of that means he is guaranteed to go to the World Cup. It is hard to ignore Alexander-Arnold’s defensive struggles for Liverpool. He is not the same player for England. He has not flourished for Southgate, who has often preferred the less exciting but more reliable Kieran Trippier, and the sense is that Alexander-Arnold needs this camp to go well. Otherwise it is hard to see any point in Southgate cramming four right-backs into his squad.

Get the best out of Foden

There was plenty of excitement about Phil Foden before Euro 2020. The City youngster turned up with dyed blond hair, which inevitably drew comparisons to Paul Gascoigne’s Euro 96 look, but he ended up having a disappointing tournament for reasons largely beyond his control.

It has been frustrating for Foden, whose international career is yet to get going. Yet England need to work out how to use him. This is a player trusted by Pep Guardiola, who has used Foden as a winger, a false 9, a No 10 and a No 8. England, who have not scored from open play in their last four games, need to tap into Foden’s inventiveness.

Phil Foden (left) in action for England against Scotland at Euro 2020.
Phil Foden (left) in action for England against Scotland at Euro 2020. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

The reliance on Kane and Sterling

Southgate needs more from his attackers. England are too reliant on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling for their goals. Mount needs to take more responsibility on the ball, and Southgate wants Bowen, Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish to emulate Sterling by chipping in with goals from the flanks.

England are stale in attack. The threat comes from Kane, but what happens if the captain has no service, has a bad game or picks up an injury? Southgate needs depth. As it stands, though, Tammy Abraham is yet to prove he is a suitable deputy. Ivan Toney, called up for the first time, will hope to prove he can be England’s Plan B. It is a worry for Southgate, who could do with Marcus Rashford recovering from the injury that has forced the United forward to miss these fixtures. Rashford, who has shown signs of getting back to his best, has lifted the burden on Kane and Sterling in the past.