England recently announced their last squad before the FIFA World Cup. Therein, it is safe to say, there have been plenty of discussion surrounding the selections, and, of course, the non-selections. Perhaps there will never come a day when an England squad will not be analyzed, scrutinized and debated. The spotlight is simply that bright. An England team will be loved, they will be hated too. But, for better or for worse, they will never really be ignored.
Gareth Southgate, thus, had made a very smart move early in his career. The England manager went all out to get the media on his side. His aim was to make as many friends as possible. The discussions will never stop so why not befriend those who talk? Smart. Even smarter and perhaps more necessary than just for the smarts was to build a team. While no platitude in football is more overused than "building a team", for England it became an absolute must.
Remember that golden generation carrying the baggage of club animosity into the England dressing room. Thus, it was imperative that the only lions England had were on the crest. And, of course, a pack on the field. Not individuals unable to set behind domestic rivalry. Once that business was taken care of, the little matter of crossing the line became priority.
Semi-final of the FIFA World Cup in Russia and one step further in the Euros last year. On paper, that is better than any other English teams' achievement in the past. So, in Qatar 2022, the only place forward is on the winners' podium. But is any graph ever linear?
England pre-World Cup squad
Gareth Southgate's latest squad announcement is a fair insight on the players he has zeroed in on to represent the nation in Qatar. The FIFA World Cup - scheduled to be played in November and December - will see England play their group games against IR Iran, USA and Wales.
On paper, Group B seems to be a relatively easy one for England to negotiate. However, they have been notorious for stumbling over seemingly low hurdles. Hence, they must tread carefully in the months leading up to the tournament and even more cautiously during the same.
Too much caution has, to be honest, been a cause of concern for the English fans. They have not always been a fan of Southgate's conservative style of play. The general consensus is that this group of English players possess tremendous attacking firepower. Southgate's job, though, will be to find optimization in the multitude of resources at his disposal.
The squad for the final games leading up to the World Cup states that Southgate is still not sure about his defenders. The manager has picked as many as 12 defenders in his squad. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Chilwell, Conor Coady, Eric Dier, Marc Guehi, Reece James, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, John Stones, Fikayo Tomori, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker have been named.
Meanwhile, the midfield comprises Jude Bellingham, Mason Mount, Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice and James Ward-Prowse. The forward line will see captain Harry Kane with Tammy Abraham, Jarrod Bowen, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling and Ivan Toney.
Dean Henderson, Nick Pope and Aaron Ramsdale have been selected as the goalkeepers.
England - the defensive conundrums
There are problems Gareth Southgate must pay immediate attention to. That involves the English defence. Harry Maguire, the leader at the back, is not starting for Manchester United. And he has not enjoyed a good spell either. The last season was a poor one for the Manchester United captain. And that is a pretty exposing reality. The captain of a football club unable to find a place in the starting eleven. The manager must thus sort out his confidence issues as well.
Southgate is not known to drop players he trusts, despite poor form. Hence, there is nothing to suggest Maguire will not start. John Stones has been the preferred partner beside him and is likely to retain his place in the first team. Consequently, an interesting question arises. At least a passing thought is that Southgate may revert to playing with a back five. Otherwise, he has essentially selected four right backs competing for one position - Walker, Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Trippier. While the Trippier can operate also as a left back, it would be strange to see him eclipse Chilwell and Shaw in that position.
In fact, barring the Manchester centre back duo, England have four others who play in the heart of the defence. This selection suggests that Southgate is yet to figure out his best partnership at the back. Usually, teams winning major international tournaments have a solid defensive line. Winners of the last three World Cups - France, Germany and Spain - despite their star front players were built on a strong foundation. All these teams possessed among the best defenders in the world at the time starting games.
England seem unsettled in that position. And that cannot be a good sign heading into a World Cup in less than two months' time.
England up front - where are the goals?
Harry Kane, 50. Raheem Sterling, 19. Harry Maguire, 7. These are not jersey numbers. They are goals scored in descending order among players currently in the England squad. Understandably, Southgate is concerned about finding goals across the squad. There is no doubting the talent at the nation's disposal. However, it has somehow not come together to click at the international level yet. England have not put that defining performance yet. One that puts the big teams on notice. Sure, they have won games against big teams. They defeated Germany in the Euros. However, no smashing results yet.
Ivan Toney, making his bow in the English squad, is a solid Kane backup. But England need the goals around him. Marcus Rashford - currently nursing an injury - will likely be in the World Cup squad following his return to productivity. Fellow Manchester United teammate Jadon Sancho's exclusion though is slightly befuddling.
Grealish has barely hit the ground running in City colours. However, he finds a way into the squad. Perhaps the debate must never even be about the two. Instead, Southgate must find a way to make a few tough calls where it is necessary. The defenders can be sacrificed for players who can turn a game from the bench. His defenders will not come on mid-game barring injury. The attackers will.
Meanwhile, Bellingham in midfield will also be a threat for the opposition. Even at a tender age, the Dortmund midfielder's ability has put the world on notice. England must, thus, find a way to leverage his box-to-box potential to the fullest.
Midfield, in fact, is the only position without any raging debates. And yet, it is the most important element to ensure England's graph truly does become linear. Till then a question must be asked - is it coming home?