The key England issues Gareth Southgate must solve with World Cup squad

 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

Gareth Southgate is due to announce his 26-man England squad for the World Cup at 2pm on Thursday — and some players face a nervous wait to learn whether they will be on the plane for Qatar.

Most of the squad picks itself but there are still some big decisions facing Gareth Southgate.

Here, Standard Sport assesses the selection issues facing the England manager...

What does Southgate do with his wing-backs without James?

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

Losing James to injury is a major blow, with the Chelsea defender having been nailed on to start at right wing-back.

Kyle Walker is expected to be named in the squad despite not playing since groin surgery on October 6, but it is unclear whether he will be fit for the start of the tournament. Should Southgate use a 3-4-3 system, then Walker is likely to start on the right of a back three.

Trent Alexander-Arnold clearly does not have the confidence of the England manager, so Kieran Trippier looks favourite to start at right wing-back. Luke Shaw will start at left wing-back and Trippier can deputise for him if necessary. If Trippier is the first-choice right wing-back, then Southgate might want to take another left-sided wing-back after Ben Chilwell was ruled out with a hamstring injury.

Crystal Palace’s Tyrick Mitchell and Tottenham’s Ryan Sessegnon are other left-sided options but lack experience at international level. Southampton’s Kyle Walker-Peters is out injured, while James Justin’s chances appear to be over after he was carried off in Leicester’s Carabao Cup win over Newport County last night.

 (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
(Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Which defenders make the cut?

Despite his struggles at Manchester Untied, Harry Maguire is a trusted member of Southgate’s squad and is set to be selected. Southgate has said he is ready to risk his reputation on Maguire and insists the 29-year-old remains an “important player” for England.

There is an argument that James Tarkowski is playing as well as any English centre-back and he is pushing for a call-up, alongside his Everton team-mate Conor Coady. Ben White has made a brilliant start to the season with Arsenal and can also fill in at right-back.

John Stones looks a cert to start, while Eric Dier earned a recall for the last set of internationals. Southgate is a big fan of Dier, who was a key member of the England squad that reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. But his form has dipped in recent weeks and he will hope his mistake against Liverpool on Sunday, which cost Spurs in their 2-1 defeat, does not negatively impact his chances.

Fikayo Tomori won Serie A with AC Milan but he showed signs of fragility in two games against Chelsea in the Champions League. Trevoah Chalobah is in the mix and Marc Guehi has been in good form for Crystal Palace and is a back-up option, while Brighton duo Adam Webster and Lewis Dunk are outsiders.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Who goes as Kane’s back-up?

Callum Wilson or Ivan Toney? Has Marcus Rashford done enough to earn a recall and does Tammy Abraham deserve a spot, despite his poor form at Roma? Who Gareth Southgate takes as back-up striker to Harry Kane is generating a lot of debate.

Wilson could not have done more to persuade the England boss he should be on the plane. He has been on fire for Newcastle, scoring six goals in 10 games in their brilliant start to the season. His injury record is against him, but he is arguably the form striker behind Kane, after scoring three goals in his last three games.

Toney is the second highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League, with eight goals for Brentford so far, but he faces a nervous wait to learn whether an FA investigation over allegations that he had been betting on football will cost him a place in Qatar.

It emerged over the weekend that Toney is subject to an ongoing inquiry, with which he is assisting the FA. According to The Mail on Sunday, the investigation relates to a period more than two years ago before he joined Brentford and did not involve betting on his own team to lose. In any case, the fact Southgate picked Toney in the last international period but did not start him does not bode well for the Bees forward.

Rashford has played his way back into contention with his return to form at Manchester United. He has not played for England since he missed a penalty in the Euro 2020 Final but has seven goals and three assists in 17 games this season, and recently scored his 100th United goal.

Abraham, meanwhile, has managed just two goals for Roma in Serie A this season and is out of form. He has also been unconvincing for England. Dominic Calvert-Lewin recently returned from a long spell out, only to suffer another injury playing for Everton last Saturday in their 2-0 home defeat by Leicester.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Is Maddison’s form too good to ignore?

The debate over whether James Maddison makes the squad is a compelling one.

Maddison has outperformed Jack Grealish this season and has 30 Premier League goal involvements (18 goals and 12 assists) in the last 14 months, more than any of his rivals. His creativity would add a different dimension to the squad. But he has not played for England since earning his one cap to date, in June 2019. In October that year, Maddison withdrew from an England squad due to illness and was later pictured in a casino.

He has been out of the picture since then, so it would be a surprise if he is included. Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Grealish, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount are all likely to be selected ahead of Maddison. Jarrod Bowen was pushing for a spot in the squad last season but his form for West Ham has dipped.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Which midfielders get the nod?

Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are set to form the England midfield axis for the opening game against Iran on November 21.

Jordan Henderson will be selected despite indifferent form for Liverpool and Kalvin Phillips is set to be included after winning his fitness battle. Phillips could make his return from shoulder surgery for Manchester City in tonight’s Carabao Cup game against Chelsea.

Chelsea duo Conor Gallagher and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have been playing well and could come into Southgate’s thinking.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

Any wildcards?

Eberechi Eze has been in great form for Crystal Palace and is, arguably, the most compelling wildcard option. Eze was to have been part of England’s provisional squad for Euro 2020 before he suffered an Achilles injury. He was unlikely to make the final cut, but the fact he was in Southgate’s thinking for the future helps his chances.

Harvey Barnes, Danny Welbeck, Dominic Solanke and Dan Burn have been in good form, but it would be a surprise if they were called up. Anthony Gordon is unlikely to have done enough, while Jadon Sancho looks set to miss out following his dip in form.