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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Five issues Gareth Southgate must address before England head to 2018 World Cup

Qualification may have been assured, but there is still plenty for the manager to work on ahead of Russia next summer.

Gareth Southgate has successfully guided England to the 2018 World Cup in Russia but there is plenty to work on ahead of next summer. Carl Recine / Reuters
Gareth Southgate has successfully guided England to the 2018 World Cup in Russia but there is plenty to work on ahead of next summer. Carl Recine / Reuters

Just as they will do next summer, England boarded the plane to fly east to face Lithuania on Sunday. They have already qualified for the World Cup in Russia. They have eight months to prepare. If Gareth Southgate’s biggest task is getting a team whose displays in qualifying have been mediocre to play like a side capable of reaching the latter stages, he has plenty of other issues to resolve.

Captaincy

This should be the simplest. While Southgate has overseen a job-share between Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson, the Tottenham Hotspur striker seems the obvious choice. His winner against Slovenia, while wearing the armband, was a sign he relishes the responsibility. He has momentum and seems to improve by the year. The only concern is that he sometimes seems fatigued by the summer.

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The Alli enigma

It is a familiar complaint. A star player produces rather better performances for his club than for England. Dele Alli appeared the exception to the rule before Euro 2016, excelling in friendlies against France and Germany. Yet now he only has one goal in his last 17 caps. Like Raheem Sterling, a bright start to an England career has given way to a struggle. The Spurs man appears to operate too far forward at times, almost as a second striker, and may be better reverting to being a pure No 10, looking for space between the lines. The other issue with Alli is his temperament: he served a suspension against Slovenia for a one-fingered gesture that, if seen, might have brought a red card.

The goalkeeping situation

England may owe their place in Russia to Joe Hart. He was the man of the match away against Slovenia and made vital saves in Thursday’s return fixture. Yet he was also poor in Euro 2016 and the draw with Scotland. He is both capable of brilliance and error-prone. Go on club form over the past 14 months and Jordan Pickford would be the first choice but he is uncapped. Jack Butland may have a stronger case, but has only played five internationals. He will start against Lithuania and Southgate must continue to experiment with the next generation.

The midfield wasteland

A reason for England’s dullness is their lack of creativity in the deeper midfield positions. Henderson and Eric Dier offer solidity but the Liverpool man’s passing is more incisive for his club and the Spurs player is essentially defensive. Since Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard retired, England have lacked penetrative passers in midfield. There are few options for Southgate, who has tended to pick workhorses. He may have to reach outside his current squad, either to Jack Wilshere, if he can stay fit and excel for Arsenal, or Jonjo Shelvey, whose temperament could make him a liability, or Danny Drinkwater, who may not play much for Chelsea. One way or another, England need invention in feeding their front four.

Trimming the squad

Southgate has ducked decisions recently. He named a four-goalkeeper, 28-man squad last month and a 26-man party this time, despite saying 12 others who might have come into contention were injured. It is stating the obvious to say that 38 into 23 will not go. The England manager will need to be ruthless. Some who have been in many a squad will not go to Russia. Decisions beckon: for instance, are Michael Keane and Harry Maguire ahead of Chris Smalling at centre-back? Is Kieran Trippier now the second-choice right-back? Does Southgate prefer Jermain Defoe or Jamie Vardy? When Adam Lallana is fit, which of the attacking midfielders drop out? Because at the moment, England are selecting quantity. What they really need is quality.