The Qatar World Cup is a little over 2 months away and the excitement is growing by the day – as is the pressure on all national team managers. England boss Gareth Southgate is perhaps under more stress than the others because success creates pressure.
He has improved the team to such an extent since taking over in September 2016 that people are talking about them going all the way and lifting the iconic trophy. They might. Considering they only narrowly lost the Euro 2020 final on penalties and that they got to the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup, England have been looking good lately and have every chance to win football’s biggest prize for the first time since 1966.
The world expects them to reach the latter stages of the tournament but for that to happen, Southgate must ensure the players who secure a seat on the plane to Qatar are the right ones. But, he doesn’t have much time to get it right as there are only five English Premier League game weeks left before he must announce his squad for the showpiece. The October 19 deadline will be soon upon him but he is currently sweating on the return to fitness and form of several key players.
Maguire and Shaw
Southgate relied on a core group that got England to the Euro 2020 final. But now, several of them aren’t even playing for their respective clubs. Take for instance Manchester United pair Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. The defenders were stalwarts at Euro 2020. They helped guide the team to final in which Shaw even scored. But now, the duo have fallen down the ranks at Old Trafford with new coach Erik Ten Hag not fancying either in his new look side. They have only seen a combined 10 minutes of Premier League action in the last four games. This leaves Southgate with a massive decision; does he show his loyalty to the pair - who will no doubt be ring rusty having hardly played this season and could therefore be prone to mistakes - or does he drop them both? At centre back, Southgate has several options, but at left back these are limited meaning Shaw may make it whether he deserves to or not. He most likely will be Ben Chilwell’s understudy but Maguire will not be selected ahead of the likes of Conor Coady, Ben White or Tyrone Mings to name but a few.
In midfield, Southgate will have another huge decision to make. What does he do about Kalvin Phillips? He was the talisman at Leeds and became the star for England at Euro 2020. A move to Manchester City followed where he has since struggled to make the team. He needs game time but will not get it between now and October 19. As good as he is, he will not displace Kevin de Bruyne, Rodri or Ilkay Gundogan in the middle of the pitch. Short of match fitness and form, he will be a risk if he is selected to play on the world’s biggest stage. So, what does Southgate do about this vital position? He can always fill it with the steady Jordan Henderson but the Liverpool captain has struggled for form this season. He can turn to Chelsea’s Mason Mount but he also hasn’t been firing on all cylinders.
There are other problems for Southgate such as who he starts between the sticks. Everton’s Jordan Pickford is the current number one and has looked good so far this campaign. He was the man of the match in the recent Merseyside derby and pulled off a string sublime saves. But we all know he is prone to making costly errors. Does Southgate put his faith in Pickford or try either Aaron Ramsdale, Nick Pope or Dean Henderson in goal?
Wealth of riches
Lastly, and at the other end of the pitch, Southgate will have to make sure he gets his attackers right. He has a wealth of riches in this department. City’s Phil Foden hardly played in Euro 2020 but helped City win the title last year. He could be key at the World Cup but he probably will have to settle for a place on the bench as Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka will likely be preferred. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford have hit form at the right time for United and look rejuvenated under Ten Hag. One of them will partner Harry Kane up front but Southgate will have further options with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Tammy Abraham and Ivan Toney all knocking at the door.
With just 70 days left before England get their campaign under way against Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium, Southgate must make sure his squad is spot on. Because with plenty of talent to choose from, if the Three Lions flop, the blame will be placed firmly at the manager’s door.