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England auditions are over but are we any closer to knowing Gareth Southgate’s starting XI at the World Cup?

Gareth Southgate seems to have settled on a 3-5-2 formation but have the recent friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy changed the squad’s pecking order?

Lawrence Ostlere
Tuesday 27 March 2018 21:10 BST
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Raheem Sterling tussles for possession with Davide Zappacosta
Raheem Sterling tussles for possession with Davide Zappacosta (Getty)

That’s it then. The audition period over, a couple of reasonable friendly showings complete, and the next time England convene will likely be as Gareth Southgate’s chosen squad for the summer’s World Cup.

On the surface there aren’t many obvious learnings from the past few days. Nobody took a game by the scruff of the neck or tore a defence to shreds. Nobody kicked and screamed their way on to the plane. If there is a learning, it is that Southgate’s team looked just that, a team, not a patchwork of individuals but a tightly knitted group who take their defensive duties seriously, and who will be a stubborn bunch to play.

But are we any closer to learning Southgate’s first-choice XI?

Goalkeeper

The biggest problem of these two cautious jousts against the Netherlands and Italy was that nether Jordan Pickford or Jack Butland was seriously tested. The No1 shirt is seemingly a contest between this talented but inexperienced pair and it may ultimately go down to their performances over the final weeks of the Premier League season. If there was a slight favourite, it might be Pickford given the composure he showed with the ball at his feet – and building from the back is a habit Southgate is keen to instil.

Butland is expected to go to Russia but faces competition (Getty)

Back three

John Stones seems certain to start at the heart of three-man defence in Russia, but perhaps the most difficult positions to nail down in the England team are those alongside him. The signs don’t look good for older heads like Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, two players omitted from these games, and Southgate has made clear he wants to build for the future.

Is Kyle Walker’s positioning on the right of a three during these friendlies a serious ploy, or simply a way of shuffling the pack to give game time to Danny Rose, Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier? The latter answer seems more logical, given Walker’s sensational season at wingback with Manchester City, but Southgate explained this week that he wants a player in that position who is both comfortable on the ball and strong at defending one on ones – Walker ticks both boxes.

The left slot could be filled by... well, Harry Maguire is probably the leading candidate, but there’s also James Tarkowski, Joe Gomez and let's not forget Phil Jones. We might be a little closer to knowing the manager’s preferred starting three, but not a lot.

James Tarkowski made his debut for England (Getty)

Wingbacks

Rose and Walker remain the favourites for these two positions, despite the fact Rose has struggled with injuries and has not always featured for Tottenham this season. But if Walker if used in a back three, then Trippier’s steady performances over these two games proved that he can step in ably at right wingback, and indeed that may have helped make up Southgate’s mind.

Midfield

Southgate used a midfield trio in both of these friendlies, and given it has been reasonably successful against two established nations, there is every chance we will see it in Russia.

The holding role position is a straight fight between Jordan Henderson, who played there against the Netherlands, and Eric Dier, who did the job against Italy. Southgate may choose to use both against tougher opposition but given England’s relatively soft group at the World Cup, he will only needs one, and the slightly deeper passing repertoire of Henderson could swing it.

There is plenty of choice either side. Adam Lallana and Dele Alli are the most likely candidates to start, but Jesse Lingard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put forward strong cases this week and are enjoying successful seasons for their clubs. Jack Wilshere is another option but missing these games through injury was a major blow to his chances.

Oxlade-Chamberlain took a knock but continued (Getty)

Forwards

Southgate seems to have settled on the two-pronged attack he has deployed both against Italy and the Netherlands. Assuming a fit-again Harry Kane takes one of these places when England’s campaign gets up and running, the other is up for grabs. Marcus Rashford looked lively and Jamie Vardy smashed in a fine finish against the Italians, but Raheem Sterling is the form player who must surely lead the line buzzing around Kane.

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