There was something very satisfying about England facing the Netherlands and Italy over the past fortnight. These are two of the best countries ever to grace international football…and yet England are the only ones packing their bags for Russia this summer. The rapid decline of the Netherlands wasn’t something that any had forecasted. It was the Italian demise that was perhaps more predictable. The way that football has gone over the past two decades has made it much harder to reach, or remain at, the top with only a world class defence. Ultimately it is the attacking flair that has seen Belgium rise to brilliance, and Spain become such an elite side. In the end, Italy fell short on that score, and with Roberto Baggio as their last truly world class attacker, their players will have to watch the World Cup from home for the first time since 1958.
Nevertheless, England’s endless run of easy qualifying groups has helped them reach every major tournament since Euro 2008. James Tarkowski and Michael Keane could be representing their nation at the World Cup in the summer. Virgil van Dijk, Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon will not be. That’s how the cookie crumbled.
And so England faced the two fallen giants of European football in the March doubleheader. Against the Netherlands in Amsterdam, Ronald Koeman was taking charge of his country for the first time, and Gareth Southgate was hoping to award Jack Wilshere his first England cap since that crushing defeat to Iceland almost two years ago. However, for the six-thousandth time, he pulled out of the squad before the first ball was even kicked. It certainly isn’t Wilshere’s fault that he was unavailable, but you have to feel as though it could be telling in Southgate’s decision. In a final squad of only 23, is it worth picking a player so vulnerable and prone to injury?
Joe Gomez was given another chance to impress at the back. The defender is remarkably only 20 years of age. Injured only ten minutes in though, Southgate knows very little about this player, and will need to rely heavily on watching his Liverpool minutes to assess if he is playable at the World Cup. This is how crucial these pre-tournament friendlies are. If a player pulls out, he’s on the backfoot in the race to the squad. These friendlies were just as much about each player’s performance as the end result.
Overall, Gareth Southgate had a lot to be pleased about in the match in Amsterdam. Jordan Pickford kept up his record of not having conceded an England goal yet – despite facing both the Netherlands and Germany. Harry Maguire and John Stones brought a positive, attacking side to the centre-back role, and Kyle Walker was a revelation in the back-three. Played at a similar position under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, he flung accurate long balls forward all night, and as all England fans know, his sheer speed can bring a swift recovery in defence – if one is needed. Stones looked a different player against Italy – and not in a good way. Despite his obvious potential, John Stones is still a very raw player, and certainly not a conventionally ‘safe’ option at the back. It remains to be seen if Gareth Southgate feels that his inclusion is a risk worth taking.
Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose were unable to produce inch-perfect crosses, but both showed Gareth Southgate enough quality to firmly cement themselves in the manager’s plans for the summer. Ashley Young fared even better against Italy, and nearly scored twice. He too, despite his age, will be a player that Southgate may struggle to keep out – especially if his electric performances for Manchester United continue. Regular Ryan Bertrand also pulled out of the squad ahead of the two ties and will therefore need to hit some sparkling form if he is to knock Danny Rose and the two-footed Ashley Young out of contention at left-back.
The centre of midfield stands out as the hardest to call. Gareth Southgate has seen Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson as his preferred pair, but they are perhaps a little too similar. If England are to be successful this summer, they need to build on the trait they are perhaps one of the best in the world at – counter-attacking. In Southgate’s 3-5-2 formation, having the defensive-minded pairing of Dier and Henderson is possibly detrimental to the aim of catching the opposition on the counter. It was abundantly clear in both games that Jürgen Klopp has done a brilliant job on former teen prodigy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Liverpool man was excellent in both matches and is exactly the sort of central-midfielder that would be perfect to partner either Jordan Henderson or Eric Dier. He took the opportunity by the scruff of the neck, and will now likely start at the World Cup. Henderson was underwhelming against the Netherlands, and it looks to be Eric Dier who is more in the ascendancy, as we enter the final couple of months of player-scouting.
Jesse Lingard was the star performer against the Netherlands, and his goal will have given him immense confidence. His Manchester United form this season has been akin to the Dele Alli we saw last season, and perhaps Ross Barkley the year before that. It is a crucial thing for a young midfielder to able to add goals to their game, and Lingard has certainly shown that. His quick thinking, allowing Jamie Vardy to score against Italy, was admirable too. Jesse Lingard is a very similar player to Dele Alli, and both will battle it out to be England’s playmaker, right to the end of the season.
Marcus Rashford was well below par in this doubleheader, but his rise to prominence will not be forgotten, and he will certainly play a key role this summer. No-one is doubting that. Jamie Vardy is England’s most in-form striker and scored one of his best England goals on Tuesday, against Italy. Vardy brings something different: a fresh, fast and unpredictable technique, borne of non-league football. His creativity could be vital at the World Cup – either from the start, or from the bench. Harry Kane, already back from injury, is England’s cert for a starting birth. This is a world class striker who, in 2017, scored more goals than both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
There are many more players that were either barely seen or completely unseen in these past two fixtures. Inevitably, there were many left at home that could work their way into the manager’s plans over the next two months. Theo Walcott, Andros Townsend and Jermain Defoe are only a few.
The conclusion is that the past fortnight has been about an 8/10 for England. Two fantastic goals scored against two very capable teams, and four points taken from a possible six. Harry Kane is back from injury, and there are four good goalkeepers still fighting it out to be England’s number 1. Only a dodgy VAR decision halted England in their ability to claim two wins from two. One of the main downsides, is the injury that Adam Lallana sustained just three minutes into his substitute appearance for Liverpool on Saturday. Lallana has been England’s best player in many of the matches he has represented his country in, but injury has cursed him over the past two years. He is in a similarly sticky situation to the likes of Wilshere, Bertrand and Gomez.
The Three Lions are certainly making vast improvements, and the formation which Gareth Southgate is pursuing seems to be getting the best out of both England’s raw attacking talent, and their young and promising defence. Gareth Southgate has been quoted as saying he knows his starting line-up already. It’s these last twelve places in the squad that are being fought over now.