England World Cup squad: Has Gareth Southgate made the correct calls on defence?
England’s 23-man squad for this summer’s World Cup was announced last Wednesday. The pressure is mounting on Gareth Southgate. The Three Lions manager has only two friendlies against Nigeria and Costa Rica to perfect his system before Russia’s main event.
Has Southgate selected the right defensive players, or has he made irreversible mistakes?
Jack Butland (Stoke City), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley).
Beginning with England’s least contentions position, Southgate has opted for three in-form goalkeepers.
Joe Hart remained in with a decent chance up until the squad was confirmed. The West Ham United loanee was present for the Three Lions’ last two friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy, although he didn’t receive any action.
Hart’s dream of featuring in his third World Cup was ultimately destroyed by struggles in East London. He started only half the Hammers’ league games this season. Coupled with glaring errors, it proved costly. Sitting on 75 England caps, the 31-year-old’s vast experience didn’t win out.
Fraser Forster and Tom Heaton have both earned international recognition during Southgate’s 18-month tenure. Both goal stoppers, however, have since lost their number one spots at clubs. Southampton’s Forster has gone five months without featuring. Burnley’s Heaton, on standby for the World Cup, was benched in the season’s last seven games after returning from injury.
Having knocked Heaton off his perch at Turf Moor, Nick Pope merited his England call-up. The 26-year-old’s reputation has soared over the past eight months. His all-round game enabled him to keep 11 clean sheets in 25 matches this campaign, the division’s joint-fifth highest. A 75.3 save percentage was only bettered by Manchester United’s David de Gea. Pope’s heroics earned him Burnley’s Player of the Season award, too.
Pope, however, is unlikely to play a significant role at the World Cup. He’s yet to receive his first England cap. Either Jack Butland or Jordan Pickford will man the posts.
Pickford has amassed 69 Premier League appearances at Sunderland and Everton. Butland, despite reaching star status roughly 12 months earlier than his Toffees counterpart, has only eight more top-flight games under his belt. The Stoke City keeper slightly edges his rival in terms of national team experience as well, seven caps to two.
This campaign, Butland produced the most saves in the top tier with 144, although largely due to the Potters’ lacklustre defenders. Pickford played all 38 matches for Everton, winning both the club’s Young and Player of the Season awards. The two shot-stoppers shared 90 minutes each during England’s most-recent contests in March.
If Southgate wants a steady presence in goal, he’ll go for Butland. If he demands to play out from the back, as widely expected, Pickford will get the nod.
Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Leicester City), John Stones (Manchester City); Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham Hotspur), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool); Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), Ashley Young (Manchester United), Fabian Delph (Manchester City).
The potential for dispute rises when looking at Southgate’s defensive choices. Why fill 43% of the whole squad with defenders? Also, why select six full-backs and only four natural centre-backs.
Harry Maguire is the only central defender included who was a regular starter this season. The 25-year-old played in all 38 league contests for Leicester City. He has flourished since joining last July, earning his first England call-up a month later. Maguire’s since represented his country on four occasions.
Both Gary Cahill and Phil Jones, meanwhile, failed to secure first-team guarantees during the past ten months. Chelsea's Cahill appeared in 27 league matches compared to 37 last campaign. Younger men at Stamford Bridge, such as Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger, have surpassed the 32-year-old. As for Jones, he’s never convinced at an elite level. An unreliable streak coupled with injuries meant he featured in only 44.6% of Man United’s competitive games this season.
In Saturday’s FA Cup final, Jones demonstrated his poor positional sense to allow Eden Hazard a clear run on goal. The defender’s clumsy side then took centre stage, bringing the Belgian down to give away a penalty. It ultimately cost United the trophy. England can’t afford such errors.
Jones’ World Cup inclusion came at a club teammate’s expense. Smalling isn't without faults, yet he’s worthy of a ticket to Russia. In United’s league campaign, the 28-year-old topped Jones in almost all the important defensive stats. Blocks per 90 minutes: 1 to 0.77. Interceptions: 2.25 to 1.88. Tackles: 1.42 to 1.14. Aerial battles won: 3.91 to 2.57. Furthermore, Smalling is dangerous in attack, scoring four goals to Jones’ zero.
Michael Keane was another centre-back option. The 25-year-old has previously played four times under Southgate. Impressing at Burnley earned him a £30 million move to Everton. He failed to maintain his form with the Toffees, though, playing a substantial role in the league’s joint-sixth worst defence.
On World Cup standby, James Tarkowski enjoyed the full 90 minutes of England’s last encounter against the Azzurri. The Manchester-born centre-half has upped his performance in this campaign. His 43 blocks, the division’s fourth highest number, helped Burnley achieve European qualification. He is not only seven years Cahill’s junior, he is in better form.
The same applies to Jamaal Lascelles. After a stellar debut Premier League season, the Newcastle United captain was eager to experience football’s grandest stage. He could have filled Joe Gomez’s young boots. Having become a favourite with Southgate, the Liverpool prospect looked certain to make the cut before receiving an ankle injury two months ago.
In the Three Lions’ next game, a friendly against Nigeria on 2 June, both Maguire and John Stones deserve a chance to stake their claim. The Manchester City defender was a regular in the campaign’s first half, executing Pep Guardiola’s tactics to perfection. Despite since losing his place, he remains England’s most notable ball-playing centre-back.
Nathaniel Clyne missed the season’s first eight months because of a back injury. Failure to regain his position in Liverpool’s starting eleven, featuring only five times in all competitions since late March, made Southgate’s life a little easier. Kyle Walker was an automatic pick. The 27-year-old has been superb, playing a prominent role in Man City’s title success. His standout displays earned him a spot in the PFA Team of the Year.
Southgate is likely to settle on deploying five at the back in the World Cup. Walker’s pace and energy mean he would command the right-back position, yet he could excel centrally, too. During the past ten months, his decision making has improved greatly under Guardiola’s tutelage.
Walker’s successor at Tottenham Hotspur, Kieran Trippier, also merits inclusion. The 27-year-old has flourished at Spurs, claiming nine assists in 35 competitive matches since August. He provides width and outstanding crossing ability. Having played 150 minutes in England's most-recent two encounters, Trippier will expect to be a regular in Russia.
Ryan Fredericks was voted in the Championship Team of the Year in April. No previous top-flight experience, however, meant Fulham’s right-back remained nothing more than an outside bet to link up with the Three Lions. Southgate opted for Trent Alexander-Arnold instead. At only 19, his selection somewhat divides opinion. His performance against Man City in the Champions League quarter-final proved a bright future lies ahead. The Liverpool Youngster is yet to feel the enormous pressure of donning England’s jersey, though.
The English talent pool is far stronger on the left. Danny Rose is the leading candidate to start in the World Cup. The 27-year-old possesses the necessary dribbling skills, acceleration, as well as defensive acumen. He has lost his place in Tottenham’s team, however. After falling out of favour with Mauricio Pochettino this season, Rose played only ten times in the league. Perhaps, then, Luke Shaw deserved Three Lions consideration as well.
This campaign, Rose featured in two fewer competitive games than his Man United counterpart. Despite struggling to impress Jose Mourinho, Shaw is England’s most-exciting left-back. His intelligent, bombarding runs would have added another dimension to Southgate’s attack.
Only 20 months after breaking through at Southampton, Shaw was included in the 2013/14 Premier League best eleven. It convinced Man United to splash out £30 million. The player they anticipated is yet to be coaxed out.
Both Ashley Young and Fabian Delph had excellent seasons, playing a combined 52 matches for English football’s top two sides. Each showed dogged determination to succeed. Although this will be both men’s World Cup debut, they have considerable international experience, gaining 42 caps between them.
Are Young and Delph both needed, though? Or for that matter, is either? The Three Lions surely have better options than a 32-year-old converted winger and 28-year-old makeshift full-back.
Ryan Bertrand was a regular in the English national squad throughout 2017, making nine appearances. Southampton’s poor campaign, though, meant the 28-year-old failed to cement his World Cup place. Southgate spoke about leaving him out: ‘’Ryan is very unfortunate in that it’s probably one of the strongest positions we have. I just felt the others were ahead of him.’’
Ryan Sessegnon, meanwhile, could have acted as Southgate’s wildcard. Having scored 20 times in 71 Championship games, as well as earning two consecutive Team of the Year places, Fulham’s teenager continues to showcase his exceptional talent. England recognition will arrive sooner than later.
Gareth Southgate was off to a good start with his goalkeeping picks. Hart failed to prove worthy.
The England boss selected the wrong central defenders, though. Smalling deserved an opportunity to reignite his international career. Jones and Cahill both didn’t.
Tarkowski should be in the squad. If Southgate had opted for more than four centre-backs, then Lascelles too. Playing for reputable clubs seemed the deciding factor, though, instead of choosing talent from less-fashionable outfits.
Although England’s three best right-backs are all going to Russia, six full-backs aren’t required. Even if a five-man defence is utilised, there would be adequate cover with one or two fewer. Southgate should have left more space for the midfield and attack.
On the left, Young is an uninspiring choice compared to Shaw. Mourinho often prefers the former’s presence in defence. Southgate needn’t have followed suit.