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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

The England problems Gareth Southgate must resolve ahead of World Cup 2018

The back three need confirming and Dele Alli's role needs determining

The wait feels never-ending. It will span 33 days in all, 33 days from when Gareth Southgate named his World Cup squad to when England take the field against Tunisia in Volgograd.

Southgate selected early, opting for clarity, but it still left some dilemmas to be resolved. He only has two games, however, in which to find answers: against Nigeria on Saturday and Costa Rica next Thursday, and there are several pivotal issues.

Confirm the back three

The deployment of Kyle Walker as a right-sided centre-back in the March friendlies against Italy and Netherlands hinted at a shift in his responsibilities. The selection of two other right wing-backs in the squad indicated that the Manchester City man is primarily a central defender for Southgate. The question is who joins him in the back three: there is little doubt John Stones is Southgate’s ideal choice as the passer in the centre, but he has only made two league starts since January. Gary Cahill, used on the left last season, has revived his Chelsea career in the centre of a trio. Last September, Southgate was calling Phil Jones’ England’s best defender but a hapless showing in the FA Cup final could mean Harry Maguire or Cahill starts on the left.

Dele Alli takes part in an England training session at St Georges Park. Nathan Stirk / Getty Images
Dele Alli takes part in an England training session at St Georges Park. Nathan Stirk / Getty Images

Determine Alli’s role

Dele Alli was benched for both March games, with Southgate telling him to show more maturity. Yet that was when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was fit. With the Liverpool man injured, Alli and Jesse Lingard could take up the roles as the two midfield runners, the No 8s, though Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s November performances against Brazil and Germany suggested he could play there. Alli is also qualified to operate behind Harry Kane in a 3-5-1-1 system, though that slot seems earmarked for Raheem Sterling. Will he be a starter or substitute?

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Jack Butland, left, and Jordan Pickford are vying to be first-choice for England at the World Cup. Carl Recine / Reuters
Jack Butland, left, and Jordan Pickford are vying to be first-choice for England at the World Cup. Carl Recine / Reuters

Pick a goalkeeper

Southgate made a definitive statement by omitting Joe Hart. Now he has to find a first choice, seemingly either Jack Butland or Jordan Pickford. The last time there was such uncertainty, Fabio Capello delayed and eventually picked Rob Green, who erred badly in the 2010 World Cup. Now Pickford, better on the ball than Butland and coming off a superior season, seems the slight favourite, but he has only won two caps. And Southgate will want to give the uncapped Nick Pope a debut during the next two games.

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Lowdown: Where to watch 2018 Fifa World Cup matches in Dubai and kick-off times

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Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold has yet to make his England debut. Paul Ellis / AFP
Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold has yet to make his England debut. Paul Ellis / AFP

Give the newcomers a chance

Southgate selected England’s third youngest World Cup squad. As nine players have 10 caps or fewer, virtually everyone could do with as much experience as possible. Trent Alexander-Arnold will miss the Nigeria game and only has a potential debut against Costa Rica to stake a case to displace Kieran Trippier at right wing-back. Fabian Delph, who has not played for his country since 2015, will require game time, especially as, after lining up at left-back for Manchester City, he has been chosen as a midfielder. And others, such as Danny Rose, Danny Welbeck and Marcus Rashford, would have wanted more first-team football at club level of late.

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England midfielder Eric Dier could get the nod ahead of Jordan Henderson as England's holding midfielder. Nathan Stirk / Getty Images
England midfielder Eric Dier could get the nod ahead of Jordan Henderson as England's holding midfielder. Nathan Stirk / Getty Images

Fine-tune one system and try others

The probability is that Southgate will start off with one holding midfielder, necessitating a choice between Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson, but the possibility is that he will revert to two for the third group game against Belgium, and probably the knockout stages. If possible, it makes sense to try both 3-5-1-1 and 3-4-2-1, just as, if Plan C incorporates using the in-form Jamie Vardy alongside Kane, potentially with Sterling behind them, that is another experiment to trial. At the same time, however, Southgate has to fine-tune England’s starting shape and side. They have begun too many major tournaments slowly in recent years. Sometimes it has cost them.

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