by Dom Smith
The days are gradually shortening and the temperature dipping. That can, of course, only mean one thing: the World Cup is nigh. There are now fewer than three months until the first-ever winter World Cup kicks off. With the Premier League season now in full flow week in, week out, it’s time to predict the final 26-man World Cup squad in which Gareth Southgate will place his hopes, this November and December.
It goes without saying that squad predictions are never an exact science, particularly three months out, and especially when so many of these players are currently enduring tough spells in their careers. Nevertheless, here is my predicted final squad. Not what I hope will happen. What I think will happen…
Jordan Pickford ~~~ There’s a reason he’s been England’s No 1 for five years, and it’s not because of his shot-stopping. If Southgate’s decision came down to who can keep the ball out of the net best, Nick Pope, Dean Henderson and Aaron Ramsdale would push Pickford more than they actually are doing. But the Everton goalkeeper’s outstanding ability with the ball at his feet means England have an added attacking threat. That’s no exaggeration, as shown by his assist for Demarai Gray’s equaliser against Nottingham Forest last weekend. Everton fans say he’s never let England down, and they’re right.
Aaron Ramsdale ~~~ Ramsdale looked like a bizarre signing when Arsenal forked out £30m for him. He had little by way of a track record. But he has established himself as one of the league’s better goalkeepers. Perhaps the first half of last season he was playing slightly above his natural level. That was shown by his return to a more sustainable level of performances in the second half, when he dropped off somewhat. But still one of England’s best keepers. His place on the plane is secure, though he’s unlikely to feature in Qatar.Embed from Getty Images
Nick Pope ~~~ Pope’s transfer to Newcastle United this summer was a smart move all round. The country’s best goalkeeper in terms of keeping the ball out of the net, but his kicking is some of the worst in Europe’s top five leagues, and so he’ll never be England No 1. At least, not under Southgate he won’t. The former Burnley ace is tall, commanding, and a calming presence behind his backline; something Pickford perhaps isn’t. He’ll almost certainly make the squad, but his involvement will finish there.
John Stones ~~~ It is no secret that there has been a lull in the quality of English centre-backs during Southgate’s regime. This is partly why the England manager has so often opted for systems with back threes — in order to mitigate against the chance for defenders to get exposed against world-class attackers. Stones is some way off starting weekly for Manchester City this season. That’s a trend that is likely to continue until the league pauses for the World Cup, barring injuries. However, he is a capable, modern centre-back with the added bonus of being a real aerial threat. Likely to start for England at the tournament, and a cert to be on the plane.
Harry Maguire ~~~ Harry Maguire has become a victim of his own transfer fee (inflated by Manchester United’s low transfer market bargaining power). Only one footballer receives more hate on Twitter: Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s true that he had a torrid time of it last season, and he looks to have now been replaced in the Manchester United starting XI as a result. But few defenders have shone at United in the past decade — because they have all lacked the safety net of a top screening midfielder operating ahead of them. Maguire is not a world-class centre-back, but he is an elite-level one. No defender has ever scored more times for the Three Lions, and his tournament experience from 2018 and 2021 will ensure he makes the squad and likely starts, regardless of his standing in United’s defensive pecking order.
Conor Coady ~~~ For lifelong Liverpool fan Conor Coady to have left Wolves for Liverpool’s arch-rivals Everton appears on the face of it to have happened at a poor time. Coady is an England mainstay, even if he does struggle to get much game time for his country. However, there is a dearth of competition at the back for England, and Coady has proved himself reliable on the pitch. More importantly, he is just the sort of mature, comical, reflective character that Southgate sees as crucial to the personality balance within his squad. No one is making a World Cup squad on personality alone, but Coady might just secure himself a place on the plane largely down to these attributes. Better in a back three, he’s unlikely to play in the tournament itself (just as in Euro 2020 when he spent the entire time on the bench).Embed from Getty Images
Fikayo Tomori ~~~ Southgate was famously hesitant to bring Tomori back into the England fold during his superb season with AC Milan last term. But he eventually did, and Tomori may well kick on now and establish himself as an England regular. A player’s age takes a backseat in a tournament in terms of desirable attributes, because the goal becomes ‘success now’ rather than ‘preparing for later’. But while his youth may not be a relevant plus in the next few months, his tactical flexibility is. Eric Dier is a better centre-back in a three. Mings works better on the left or in a two. But Tomori can play almost any centre-back role in a two or a three. He may well be rewarded.
Kyle Walker ~~~ If England play a back three, Walker will start on the right. If England play a back four, Reece James and (if he sorts out his poor form in the early weeks of the season) Trent Alexander-Arnold will no doubt push him hard. But Walker’s place — at least in the squad — is in no doubt. His recovery pace was key to England making the final last summer, and his defensive discipline has rightly improved in the last few years, as both Southgate and Pep Guardiola have tried to reinvent the player. They needed to anyway, because he’s not a particularly gifted crosser of the ball, and more technical attacking fullbacks exist. The role he plays this winter depends on the formation. His place in the squad doesn’t.
Reece James ~~~ Reece James is a phenomenal, bullish athlete for a player who is still only 22. It seems only a matter of time before he is England’s starting right-back, and this tournament should see him play more game time than at Euro 2020, where his only moment in the spotlight came in the 0–0 draw with Scotland. On that day, James wasted his opportunity and seemed cowed by the occasion. He’s grown as a player since, and could form a phenomenal right-side partnership with Walker if England opt for a 3–4–3 or 3–5–2 system. An England star of the future. The not-too-distant future.
Kieran Trippier ~~~ His wondrous free-kick against Manchester City aside, Trippier seems like the sort of player who will make it into the squad more because of their past record for Southgate’s England than because of their current capability or form. His ability to deputise on the left is a major plus, with traditional left-backs Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell sat behind Tyrell Malacia and Marc Cucurella in the Manchester United and Chelsea pecking orders, respectively. Trippier is clearly a set-piece weapon and a flexible option who has been there and done it for England at tournaments before. His 31 years of age could be a barrier, but Southgate loves and trusts him, and that counts for a lot.Embed from Getty Images
Trent Alexander-Arnold ~~~ Where oh where do we start with Trent Alexander-Arnold in an England shirt? For all his scrumptious goals and assists and switches of play for Liverpool, only three of his 17 England displays have seen him play at anywhere near the level he regularly delivers for his club… and one of those games came against minnows San Marino. Jürgen Klopp said last season that he was sick and tired of those who ‘wrongly’ claim Trent can’t defend. However, he only really has a right to feel aggrieved at the tedious repetition of such views, because those views exist for good reason. The early games of the new season have shown why they persist. A gorgeously talented footballer? Most definitely. But a positionally trustworthy tournament player? Sadly not. He might squeeze his way onto the plane, but he has a lot to do to convince Southgate that he’s the right man to lead England’s charge down the right flank. One of the eternal puzzles of the Southgate era: how to get the best out of England and Trent Alexander-Arnold at the same time.
Ben Chilwell ~~~ When Chilwell came on for Chelsea on the final day of last season, it felt like an appropriate time for him to return from his terrible ACL injury — affording him the summer to recuperate and eventually return as Chelsea’s unarguable best left wingback option. But Cucurella’s signing — and the way he has so seamlessly fitted into Thomas Tuchel’s team — has thrown everything up in the air. Chilwell was immensely unlucky not to feature at the Euros, but Shaw’s form made him undroppable. Both he and Shaw were missing from the June Nations League camp and a natural left-footer was one of many things England sorely lacked. There is a real opportunity for Chilwell to start for England at the World Cup. Battling and beating Cucurella to Chelsea’s starting berth by November seems his best route in. He’ll probably make the squad regardless, but Southgate is much more likely to bring him and start him if he’s playing week in week out for his club.
Luke Shaw ~~~ Since being one of the best players from any team at the European Championships, Shaw has regressed along with nearly all of his United teammates. So many times last season he was seen bickering with Maguire after United had conceded a needless goal, and so scarcely was he seen crossing the ball higher up the pitch to good effect. He should not be losing a positional battle for game time to Malacia, and he must change Erik ten Hag’s mind as quickly as possible. In the squad? Yes. In a starting role? At present, it looks somewhat unlikely. Everyone knows what he can do, but he needs to start reminding everyone. He must provide fresh evidence of why he rightly earned plaudits from around the world last summer. Someone needs to replace Shawberto Carlos’s batteries.
Declan Rice ~~~ Declan Rice has become one of the best players in the country, and one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. It is a humorous and a pleasing thought that West Ham United fans are genuinely not talking rubbish when some of them claim they have the best defensive midfielder in the world as their captain. He can play as a defensive midfielder, as part of a double pivot, and if needed even further forward. His commitment never waivers and his importance to England and West Ham rarely fails to show itself. An obvious England starter.Embed from Getty Images
Jordan Henderson ~~~ It’s likely that if Henderson hadn’t picked up an injury, he would have played alongside Rice and instead of Kalvin Phillips for the majority of England’s Euro 2020 campaign. As it happens he didn’t get that privilege, and so his role at the 2022 World Cup remains a bit of a mystery. The fact Southgate let him rest instead of join the Nations League squad in June is a positive sign for his chances, and it would certainly be a shock if he failed to make the cut. Whether he will start is a different matter. Comfortable in possession and a player who has worked hard to disprove those who claim he only passes sideways, he’ll feature in Qatar. Perhaps a ‘finisher’, not a starter.
Kalvin Phillips ~~~ Game time at Manchester City is worth more than game time for Phillips’s beloved Leeds United, and so he will not always be centre stage for City this season. However, Southgate knows what Phillips is about and really values his application, dedication and humility. All of England’s midfielders will have to wait until Southgate decides which formation he will opt for before they know how big a part they will play, but Phillips has the added bonus of being adept in multiple systems. He is England’s reigning player of the year.
James Ward-Prowse ~~~ Few Premier League players hold the weight of their club’s ambitions on their shoulders quite as much as Ward-Prowse does at Southampton. It is way too easy to buy Guardiola’s line that Ward-Prowse is the best free-kick-taker in the world and then to criticise the rest of his game in comparison. But it is not sensible to compare Ward-Prowse’s other attributes to something at which he is comfortably world-class. A better idea is to compare him to England’s midfield alternatives, and in that regard, he comes out rather well. In amongst four dismal performances, he was a shining light for England this summer. His blend of composure and incisiveness gave England midfield control over Italy in the 0–0 draw at Molineux, and so there is increasing evidence that he could handle a large role for England in a major tournament. If any player is likely to spring a real surprise and force their way into Southgate’s first team at the perfect time, it is Ward-Prowse. Southgate loves him.
Jude Bellingham ~~~ What a player Jude Bellingham is turning into. A hypercritical individual would argue that he’s not pushed on quite as fast as he might have done since his cluster of cameo appearances at Euro 2020. For that reason, those banging the drum for Bellingham to start in Qatar might well be left disappointed. But he will certainly make the plane, and he definitely won’t spend all of his time on the bench. He’ll still be a teenager until next June. That’s a good reason to take him to his first World Cup. But a better reason is that he quite clearly deserves to be there.
Forwards and wide forwards
Mason Mount ~~~ Mason Mount is a player who was always going to be judged by personal choice. For some managers, he would be an attacking midfielder who needs to get his numbers up. For others, he’d be the same but out wide. But for Southgate and Tuchel, he’s seen as an extremely versatile offensive player whose numbers are secondary because he’s tactically chameleon-like. Mount’s numbers can afford to be slightly subpar, because he is there to make sure the team meets its overall objectives. Off the ball, he is a tireless runner, and so quite what he adds to a team can be lost on many. There is a reason Jesse Lingard divided opinion even when he was at his peak: many couldn’t see the good work he was doing for the team. Southgate loves Mount. He’ll make it in with ease.Embed from Getty Images
Jack Grealish ~~~ While it often looked in the early days as though Southgate didn’t trust Jack Grealish very much, you always sensed that Grealish had the utmost respect for Southgate. He didn’t take criticism of his game personally; he used it to improve. Another silky attacking player whom England teams of the past would have died for, Grealish is starting to establish himself at City as he enters his second season at the Etihad. His ball-striking technique is exemplary, and while he can’t offer the raw pace of some of his direct competitors, his ability to hug the ball tightly and keep it for his team is invaluable in a tournament setting, where possession takes on a newfound importance. He’ll be in Qatar. That said, his role and indeed the extent to which England need him remain ill-defined.
Bukayo Saka ~~~ Of all of England’s 26 players at Euro 2020, no one has kicked on in their career quite as well as Arsenal’s Saka. The 20-year-old can play on either side of a front three, and can even deputise as a left wingback. Last season his Premier League goals tally hit double figures for the first time, and there are no signs of his rapid rise to the top of the game stopping yet. Southgate can count on him to turn up in big games for England — as he showed against Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final and in the recent 1–1 draw with Germany in Munich. If he doesn’t join Raheem Sterling in flanking Harry Kane this winter, he’ll at the very least be the first player off the bench. No longer ‘Starboy’. One of England’s star men now.
Phil Foden ~~~ Southgate and Guardiola are blessed to have Phil Foden in their ranks. Flexible, composed, and with a deceptively powerful shot, he is in many ways the modern inverted winger. Manchester City have enjoyed his steady rise in goal involvements over the past few years, and while his England goals and assists remain low, they will come. He will probably start for England in a front three, and that would strike fear into any defence on the planet. Oh, and he’ll still be 22 this winter. You forget his youth sometimes.
Raheem Sterling ~~~ There will always be a level of inconsistency when Southgate speaks about form versus status, because whether or not a player is picked is of course decided on a case-by-case basis. Raheem Sterling is the England player whose form could drop off more than any other and who would still receive a call-up. You could count on one hand the number of non-strikers who have scored as many England goals as Sterling’s 19. 17 of those came under Southgate’s stewardship. The manager’s success in getting the best of Chelsea’s new signing during his six-year reign has been one of his biggest achievements. OK at the 2018 World Cup. Excellent at the Euros. Still an England starter — and still only 27!
Marcus Rashford ~~~ It doesn’t feel like it should be the wildcard shout, but it is. Marcus Rashford has certainly not been able to keep Manchester United’s calamitous recent history at arm’s length from his own form. His career, his direction, his status as an England player have all taken a hit. It feels as though this final wide attacking spot will go to either him or his United teammate Jadon Sancho. If it came down to whose goal against Liverpool was better, Sancho would be on his way to Qatar. But Rashford was crucial for England in Southgate’s early years in charge, and that, plus his searing pace, could prove just about enough. A strong couple of months for his club would do his chances the world of good.Embed from Getty Images
Harry Kane ~~~ England’s captain, talisman, and soon-to-be leading all-time scorer. Kane is by some distance the best English footballer right now, and an injury to him ahead of the tournament would dent England’s chances more so than an injury to any other player would. England scored 23 goals at their last two tournaments. Kane scored ten of those. If he failed to score a single goal between now and squad announcement day, he’d still start up front against Iran in the opener as England captain.
Tammy Abraham ~~~ Under José Mourinho’s tutelage, Abraham blossomed last term in his first season at Roma. The club feel like they’ve finally got a decent striker to fill the very large boots left behind by one-club man and Roman legend Francesco Totti, and Abraham must feel like he’s made the best possible decision for his career. Back playing, back scoring, and back in the England team. Ivan Toney, Callum Wilson, Ollie Watkins and Dominic Calvert-Lewin will also be eyeing up the chance to play second fiddle to Kane. But three months out from the tournament, it’s Abraham’s spot to lose.