Gareth Southgate made us wait for his World Cup squad on Wednesday. We were left twiddling our thumbs until 2pm, but finally we found out the 23 who will boarding the plane to Russia with the great weight of the country’s expectations.
Social media and Sky Sports News were sent into raptures of overreaction at the news. If truth be told, we didn’t learn all that much from Southgate’s squad. And not just because most of the big stories had already been leaked...
We already knew Southgate was keen to pick on form, and he did just that leaving Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere out. We already knew Southgate was happy to opt for less experienced players, and he did just that naming Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The inclusions of Paul Jones, Gary Cahill and Danny Welbeck were fortuitous, but all understandable in their own ways. Southgate has talent at his disposal, albeit in a slightly imbalanced 23-man squad.
Meeting With The Belgians
England head to Russia as second favourites to win their group at 6/5. The presence of the ostentatiously talented Belgium is the key thing to consider with those odds.
Southgate’s side face the Belgians in their third and final group game, when qualification should be confirmed after fixtures with Panama and Tunisia. The 6/5 price is a good one. Belgium are stupidly gifted, as we know, but this England squad has the talent to trouble them.
With both teams possibly guaranteed a last 16 berth by that point, too, the match could take a slightly more relaxed tone. Belgium underachieved at the Euros a couple of years and are one of the teams under the most pressure this summer.
Meek performances in the easier group matches have blighted England at past tournaments. I don’t see that being the case this summer, though, with the potent frontline that Southgate can field of Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Dele Alli.
The ability to bring Jamie Vardy or Marcus Rashford off the bench changes things drastically, too. For all the criticism of the England squad – and there has been a huge amount – they have forwards capable of changing games, and one of the best spearheads in world football.
Golden Boot Bet?
Kane is the face of this team. If he can hit one of those purple patches we see two or three times a club season, England can be a real contender. The Tottenham man is out at 16/1 to win the Golden Boot, a price I think is pretty reasonable given his scoring record.
England’s main problem will be creativity. Southgate has a vast collection of full-backs and central defenders to call upon, but his midfield is almost non-existent. If the Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson partnership is the way forward, a lot of creative responsibility falls to Alli and the wing-backs.
Alli has shown he can live up to that this season, though, registering a similar expected assists per 90 number to Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Roberto Firmino. Alli is at 2/1 to have the most assists of any England player.
Away from Dier and Henderson, Fabian Delph is the only other ‘orthodox’ central midfielder and even he’s largely been a left-back this term. Loftus-Cheek and Lingard could fulfil that role in a 3-4-3 if Southgate wants a more offensive option, however.
I don’t expect England to struggle against Panama or Tunisia, but chance creation could be an issue if Dier and Henderson are named as the midfield duo.
Depleted Midfield To Struggle?
The absences of Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Harry Winks limit Southgate’s options drastically in the middle. Injuries have derailed the World Cup hopes of all three, who all look to be making claims to start the opening match.
Jonjo Shelvey could have filled one of those spots but concerns over his discipline saw the Newcastle man miss out despite a fine run of form to end the campaign. I fear England could regret not having this passing range, at least from the bench, at some point this summer.
This England squad is good. Southgate has been largely ruthless in his selection. Young players have got the opportunity on merit rather than for the sake of naming them, and form has – for the most part, at least – contributed to the selections.
Are England Actually Good?
The quibbling about the squad will continue until England are knocked out. It might continue even if England come home with the trophy. Southgate didn’t tear up trees, but he continued along the path he has set out.
For that, he deserves praise, and there are no unjustifiable decisions either way in his selection. England are out at 17/1 to win the tournament. Few will argue with their status as seventh-favourites.
I like their chances to make the quarter-finals, whether they finish first or second in their group. Meeting Germany or Brazil in the last eight, though, makes it very unlikely Southgate takes his side any further.
Predicted XI for opening match: Pickford, Trippier, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Rose, Dier, Henderson, Alli, Sterling, Kane
TIP: England to be eliminated in the quarter-finals @ 5/2
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*