With the domestic season nearing the home-straight, it is time to consider how Gareth Southgate’s options, both for March and further beyond, have evolved. The England team right now, perhaps down to its feel-good factor, seems as competitive for places as it has been in the modern era. Who has kept themselves in contention? Who deserves a return to the squad? Whose days might be numbered, and who is forcing their way into the manager’s plans?
Predictably, we start between the posts. Jordan Pickford was a revelation for England in 2018 and, despite the odd questionable moment that almost all goalkeepers experience sometimes, looks set to be Southgate’s Number 1 for a good while yet.
Times have been a little harsher on Stoke City’s Jack Butland, once the obvious long-term replacement to Joe Hart. Butland was never snapped up by a Premier League club in the summer and so fell to the Championship with relegated Stoke. Since the England squad of November returned to their clubs, Butland has played 11 times for Stoke, keeping only three clean-sheets. These, with all due respect, have come against Millwall, Bolton and Ipswich. Southgate may keep faith with Butland, but there are now more alternatives if he chooses to look elsewhere.
These include two Southampton goalkeepers – Alex McCarthy and Angus Gunn. The former made his England debut in November’s 3-0 win over the USA having been previously called-up by both Roy Hodgson and Sam Allardyce. The latter is one of the country’s most promising shot-stoppers. He’s currently England’s U-21 goalkeeper and has kept clean-sheets this season against Brighton and Leicester in the League Cup as well as Chelsea in his only Premier League appearance.
The outside bets include near-veterans Tom Heaton and Joe Hart at Burnley. Both are capable keepers but both are accident-prone. The deciding factor may be that they are both in their thirties. Gareth Southgate has made it abundantly clear over the past year that if you’re over thirty, you’re not getting anywhere near the squad – unless you happen to be Ashley Young.
Moving into the position of centre-back, no-one seems more likely to appear in March than John Stones. After a couple of seasons where he was in and out at Manchester City, he finally seems to be winning the four-way centre-half battle at his club. His increased game time has suggested Pep Guardiola considers him marginally better than Vincent Kompany, Aymeric Laporte and Nicolás Otamendi. Harry Maguire and Joe Gomez will join him if they return from periods on the side-line with injury.
The battle for that fourth place looks to be contested between three men all capped by Gareth Southgate – Michael Keane, Lewis Dunk and James Tarkowski. The latter’s club teammate Ben Mee could be in with a shout also. However, the former youth international is 29, not ideal age to be starting out in international football. The wildcard option is Fikayo Tomori. The 21-year-old Chelsea graduate is on loan with Frank Lampard at Derby and has impressed in recent weeks with his composure on the ball. Tomori still has a big decision to make though. He could represent Nigeria through his parents’ roots, Canada where he was born or England, with whom he won the 2017 U-20 World Cup.
Left-back is a tight position to call. Luke Shaw threatened to make the position his own after the World Cup, but his wretched run with injury returned. He pulled out of the starting line-up just fifteen minutes prior to kick-off this weekend. Manchester United and England will be doing all they can to ensure he returns to first-team action as soon as he can.
Ashley Young has had another strong season, but perhaps the World Cup was his international swansong. To pick the 33-year-old ahead of younger options now would hardly be building for the future. Talking of younger options, fresh-faced Ben Chilwell has continued a productive season with Leicester and will surely return in March. Danny Rose will presumably appear too because of good recent form at Spurs. Waiting to come in at some point is young star Ryan Sessegnon at Fulham.
Fabian Delph is perhaps the hardest of all to call. A holding-midfielder by trade, he can play at left-back or even as a number 10 but has mostly been played at left-back. His age, 29, shouldn’t be on its own an issue, but his form and game time have both decreased since his brilliant performances in November. Will we ever see the tireless Manchester City man in an England shirt again? It could go either way.
Switching wings, we come to England’s richest position – right-back. The obvious two are Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker, considered so undroppable that Gareth Southgate managed to fit them both into his 11 in Russia. Trippier has had a season so far overshadowed by niggling injuries and a lack of confidence when he has played. Walker’s season has been littered with uncharacteristic mistakes. These two are probably the only players to have taken a slight turn for the worse since the World Cup. There is plenty of time for them to recover their scintillating form of last term though.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has also endured periods out of fitness this season, although his form has invariably been outstanding. The twenty-year-old would make a lot of fans very happy indeed if he could establish himself as England’s right-back for a decade to come. Waiting in the wings to challenge Alexander-Arnold though are Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Kyle Walker-Peters. Both are 21 and have been brilliant when representing Crystal Palace and Tottenham respectively. Wan-Bissaka has played in all-but-one of Palace’s league games this season; Walker-Peters has played against Barcelona in the Champions League and claimed three first-half assists in a 5-0 league win over Bournemouth. They are England’s two U-21 right-backs.
Defensive midfield is the hardest position of all to call. Jordan Henderson has returned from injury hiccups earlier in the season to play a fair few games now for Liverpool. Southgate will likely want to see him back in for the March qualifiers. Eric Dier has enjoyed a good season so far for Spurs. He is a must. So too is club teammate Harry Winks, fresh off the back of that last-gasp winner against Fulham. Lewis Cook still doesn’t look quite ready, but Everton’s Tom Davies may see this as his year to break through into the seniors. The tough-tackling 20-year-old is unmistakable with that signature long-blond hair. He has already racked up over 80 appearances for Everton and has been playing youth football for England since he first represented the U-16s in 2013.
A similarly exiting prospect is that James Ward-Prowse may be ready to return to Southgate’s side now. The young midfielder has bags of quality, is harsh in the tackle and can both deliver and score wonderful free-kicks. His only England appearance came as a cameo in Germany nearly two years ago. New Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhüttl met him straight away to discuss how Ward-Prowse could and should be imposing himself on matches more. Since then, he has scored twice in two weekends in the Premier League and played particularly well in midweek in the FA Cup.
Nathaniel Chalobah needs to focus on getting more game time at Watford before thinking of an England recall. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain needs to write-off the March internationals too and instead aim to return for the UEFA Nations League Finals this summer.
As we push up into the final third, we reach the area where England are overloaded with options. What a lovely thought. In that advanced midfielder role, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard are the obvious two. Both have four league goals this season and have been instrumental to their sides’ recent good fortunes.
Next come Chelsea’s trio of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ross Barkley. Loftus-Cheek limped off with back pains in the FA Cup win over Nottingham Forest recently. His expected return date is unknown, but he should be back in time for March. Barkley is fine fitness wise, has been playing reasonably well, but has maybe lost the firepower he showed earlier in the season. Hudson-Odoi is tempted to leave Stamford Bridge in pursuit of game time at Bayern Munich. He looks set to reject a new £85,000-a-week deal at the Bridge, a mature decision for an 18-year-old. Hudson-Odoi could be wonderful for England if used in the right way. Southgate won’t be tempted to call him up if he can’t force his way into the first team, wherever that may be, though.
Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson, the young trailblazers plying their trade in the Bundesliga, will fancy their chances of making Southgate’s squad in March, whilst Leicester City pair James Maddison and Demarai Gray have been wonderful in the Premier League. 20-year-old Mason Mount has inspired Derby at times this season too. Big, big things are expected of Guardiola’s second son Phil Foden. We might start to see him towards the tail end of the year.
Two players who have enjoyed form so good in recent weeks that Gareth Southgate is sure to be taking note are Nathan Redmond at Southampton and Andros Townsend at Crystal Palace. Redmond has played just once for England before, also appearing in Germany in March 2017 like Ward-Prowse. And also like Ward-Prowse, he has time on his side at just 24 years of age. He has also improved with the introduction of Hasenhüttl as manager and is knocking on the door for an England recall.
Townsend is too. He burst onto the scene in 2013 with a debut goal and man-of-the-match display under Roy Hodgson in a crucial World Cup qualifier. Twelve caps and two more stunning goals later, he hasn’t represented England in over two years. Few players in the Premier League can strike the ball as well off either foot as Townsend, and that has shown this season with long-range belters against Man City, Burnley and West Bromwich Albion [in the Carabao Cup]. The 27-year-old could still do a job in Southgate’s side. Townsend is a willing runner, a capable crosser and has a proven record at international level, with goals against San Marino, Montenegro and Italy.
The wildcard option is actually a seasoned international – Adam Lallana. 31 in a few months, Lallana’s injury troubles have come at an awful time. On the fringes ahead of the World Cup, he was a member of Southgate’s seven-man reserve list for in Russia. The England manager is a fan of Lallana, who he has said on multiple occasions he always finds hard to leave out because of injuries. However, the midfielder has only 300 minutes of football behind him and no goals this season. The player himself can’t be blamed for his injuries nor his lack of form, but he maybe ought not be risked in March, unless fully fit, either.
Up front, England’s options have grown quite considerably over the past months. Danny Welbeck’s injury makes leaving him out a little easier. The Arsenal man isn’t going to return to action for quite some time. In the meantime, it’s likely his place in the England side may be auctioned off to someone else. Callum Wilson has ten league goals this season for Bournemouth and made the perfect start to international football with a debut goal in November. Harry Kane, if he returns from injury in time, is a given and Marcus Rashford is just about the most in-form player in the Premier League right now. Manchester City’s league top scorer Raheem Sterling is equally a cert.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ademola Lookman are both playing brilliantly for Everton when given the game time, while the estranged Dominic Solanke may finally come good in the Premier League after his £19million transfer from Liverpool to Wilson’s Bournemouth. Elsewhere, Aston Villa’s Tammy Abraham is the top scorer in the Championship and like Solanke has already played for England under Southgate.
The overall message is that England’s pool is getting bigger rather than smaller. The World Cup squad largely picked itself. In other words, you needn’t have listened to Southgate announcing it in May. When Southgate picks his squad for the March qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Montenegro, it will be much less predictable. England’s older players have remained in contention and many of the youth internationals have started to blossom and come of age. For England fans all around, this should make 2019 a very enjoyable year indeed.