Written by Sport and Fitness • Published 31st July 2017
2017 has been a fine year for the youth teams in the England fold.
The U17s found themselves in the final of the European Championships, the U19s won the European Championships, the U20s won the World Cup, and finally, the U21s reached the semi-finals of the European Championships.
If there was ever a good time to exceed expectations and reach the latter stages of a tournament, it’s certainly now.
The only way to make up for last summer’s infamous Iceland game is to get past the quarterfinals at Russia 2018.
By the time England seniors board the plane, it will have been 22 years since the national side saw a semi-final.
Gareth Southgate has watched the other age groups step-it-up, he saw it first-hand when he won the Toulon tournament with his U21 side last summer.
The question is, how does he get his senior side to reach these heights under the intense scrutiny that the youth teams do not face.
The first issue, of course, is who to take to the tournament. Southgate has experimented cautiously and rather bravely at times during the qualifying campaign and friendlies. However, it is certain that within the 23-man squad, he will likely include three goalkeepers and at least seven defenders.
Assuming there are no injuries, Jack Butland and Joe Hart have their places firmly secured. That leaves, realistically, Fraser Forster, Tom Heaton and Jordan Pickford to compete for the final spot.
In defence, full-backs Kyle Walker, Nathaniel Clyne and Danny Rose are odds-on to make the cut. That currently leaves Ryan Bertrand, Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier jostling for the free seat.
Centre-backs John Stones and Michael Keane will make the flight, whilst several players will be in-contention to take the two remaining spaces. Gary Cahill, Ben Gibson, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and perhaps also, Rob Holding, need to have a stellar season to convince the England manager.
In midfield, Eric Dier (who can also play as a centre-back) and Jordan Henderson look to be first-choice holding midfielders. The competition for the reserve spots is vast. Jack Wilshere, Nathaniel Chalobah, Harry Winks, Tom Davies, James Ward-Prowse and Ruben Loftus-Cheek could all make the squad depending on how much first-team action they get this season.
When it comes to wingers and attacking midfielders, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli can rest assured of their places.
Battling it out, for potentially two places, are Ross Barkley, Andros Townsend, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wayne Rooney, Nathan Redmond and Jesse Lingard.
In the striking department, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford will undoubtedly make the squad. Whether Southgate wants to take more than three strikers is unknown. Therefore, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Jamie Vardy and Jermain Defoe will all have to produce a high goal tally at the end of the season if they want to be considered.
When it comes to the formation, Southgate favours the 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3. With most teams in the Premier League using both, but more recently adopting the latter, there should be no excuses or complaints that the England players were played out of position or in a confusing system.
One of the biggest mistakes England managers make at tournaments is trying to squeeze certain players into the team, even though there isn’t really room. It can be the captain or just someone that couldn’t possibly be benched. Either way, that player ends up thrust out onto the wing, where they don’t ever play, or put in midfield because of the lack of options. Think Wayne Rooney at the last two tournaments.
Sacrifices must be made, and Southgate owes it to the fans to be brave and stick to his guns if he wants a balanced side.
With just under a year until the tournament, Southgate must make sure his preferred 11 has had enough games together before the World Cup. His job, and the confidence in his England team, depend on it.