World Cup: Who will England boss Gareth Southgate pick to go to Russia?

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate had a look at some new players this month

England manager Gareth Southgate is two games closer to the World Cup after friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy - and two games closer to finalising the squad that will carry the nation's hopes in Russia.

Southgate had serious questions to ponder before these games, with less than 100 days to go to the start of the summer showpiece.

These questions were examined before the 1-0 win in Amsterdam and the 1-1 draw with Italy at Wembley - how far have these games gone towards answering them?

England pre-World Cup friendlies
Netherlands (1-0 win)Fri, 23 MarchJohan Cruyff Arena
Italy (1-1 draw)Tue, 27 MarchWembley Stadium
NigeriaSat, 2 June (17:15 BST)Wembley Stadium
Costa RicaThu, 7 June (20:00 BST)Elland Road Stadium

Has Southgate found England's safe hands?

Southgate said before the friendly against the Netherlands that he would know who his goalkeeper would be if the World Cup "was starting tomorrow".

The position has been unclear amid the decline of Joe Hart, who endured poor tournaments at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and has also been struggling at club level.

If Hart does go to the World Cup, and Southgate still seems to retain a measure of faith, then surely his best hope is as third choice behind Everton's Jordan Pickford and Stoke City's Jack Butland.

Pickford got his chance in the 1-0 win away to the Netherlands while Butland got his opportunity at Wembley against Italy.

Burnley's Nick Pope was the fourth goalkeeper in the squad but did not see any action.

So who is edging ahead in the battle to start against Tunisia in Volgograd on 18 June?

Pickford earned rich praise from Southgate after he made it two clean sheets from two caps in Amsterdam - and at this stage he looks like the man most likely.

Southgate was effusive about Pickford's composure and creativity with the ball at his feet against the Netherlands, significantly pointing out his part in starting the move that led to Jesse Lingard's winning goal.

Pickford's display was not perfect - he found himself out of position to almost allow Bas Dost to score with a header, and was also fortunate to escape punishment after being caught in possession by the giant striker.

On the whole, however, he showed safe handling, high confidence and was not overawed by his audition for a World Cup place.

Southgate wants England to play out from the back and believes Pickford's ability on the ball can give his side the dimension he wants. This will be an important factor in his reckoning.

It was hard to make any serious assessment of whether Butland advanced his own claims for a starting place because he had so little to do against Italy. He had no chance with Lorenzo Insigne's penalty and had no opportunities, through no fault of his own, to showcase his ability.

Southgate still has time to ponder his choice in the weeks ahead but it is clear his thoughts are becoming more crystallised - and Everton's 24-year-old Pickford, a shining light at club level in a poor season, may just have his nose in front.

Who will form England's defensive barrier?

England debutant James Tarkowski
England debutant James Tarkowski conceded a controversial penalty against Italy

Southgate now looks set on the three-man defensive formation he has used in recent internationals - but these friendlies saw an intriguing twist involving Manchester City's Kyle Walker.

Walker was moved from his customary right-back position into the right side of that defensive triumvirate to operate with success and comfort against the Netherlands and Italy.

The results of the experiment will have delighted Southgate, who must now decide whether Walker's raw pace is best utilised there or raiding further up the flanks to add to England's attacking armoury.

Tottenham's Kieran Trippier will have increased Southgate's satisfaction with two solid displays, and given England's manager further food for thought about his Walker gameplan.

Walker also has an understanding with John Stones from club level, although the latter is still prone to cause nervous moments and was very fortunate not to be punished when caught in possession by Italy's Ciro Immobile - although he got himself out of the hole he had dug for himself.

Stones is a certain starter in Russia but there is an increasingly strong case for Tottenham's Eric Dier to move back into a defensive role he has played before, while Leicester's Harry Maguire has also looked at home in the back-three formation.

Burnley's James Tarkowski, conceding a penalty apart, made a solid England debut at Wembley but would be an unlikely World Cup starter, while Swansea City's Alfie Mawson was unused.

Southgate appears to have made up his mind that Manchester United's Chris Smalling is not comfortable enough on the ball at international level, while it remains to be seen if Gary Cahill can revive his hopes after being dropped. He will need to play for Chelsea first to do that.

Southgate is also hoping Manchester United's Phil Jones will stay injury-free to step up his own claims, while Liverpool's Joe Gomez was unfortunate not to be able to build on a strong start to his England career after an early injury in Amsterdam, but he will be under serious consideration once he recovers.

And what about on the left flank?

Manchester United's Ashley Young has suddenly bolted into contention with his reinvention under Jose Mourinho, while Luke Shaw's hopes have expired at the hands of the same manager.

Young, at 32, has pushed himself into consideration for a starting place and it looks like his main rival will be Southampton's Ryan Bertrand after Tottenham's Danny Rose did his chances more harm than good with a very poor display against the Netherlands.

Who will give England creativity?

Dele Alli
Dele Alli did not start either of England's March friendlies

England have assured performers in midfield such as Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Dier - should Southgate decide to play him there - but there are still questions over both the foundation and creativity in that area of the team.

Henderson and Dier are reliable if unspectacular, but are they game-changers? And if not, where will Southgate find one?

Jack Wilshere is touted as England's most creative midfield player but his World Cup place must now be in serious doubt after another injury cry-off.

Liverpool's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still making his way in the central midfield position with as yet no evidence that he will have serious influence against the best opposition.

Tottenham's Harry Winks made a big impression in England's World Cup qualifying win in Lithuania but has been hampered by injury and the form of Mousa Dembele in the Spurs midfield. Time is running out for him.

So who else could Southgate be looking at?

An outsider will be Ruben Loftus-Cheek, back in action for Crystal Palace after injury and a successful period in his loan spell from Chelsea.

Loftus-Cheek, still only 22, excelled against Germany in the friendly at Wembley in November and a return to that sort of form between now and the end of the season will thrust him to the forefront of Southgate's thoughts once more.

And what about the case of Dele Alli?

Alli has looked a certain starter every inch of the way through England's World Cup campaign but suddenly seems to have a fight on his hands.

Jesse Lingard has the adaptability Southgate desires while Raheem Sterling has all the qualities to play in a number 10 role behind Harry Kane.

Alli is still in a strong position to start against Tunisia - but suddenly he has something to prove.

England still relying heavily on Kane

Jesse Lingard
Jesse Lingard has played himself into contention to start in Russia

There was much to admire in England's attacking play against the Netherlands and Italy but there is no question it remains hugely reliant on Kane.

For all the good approach work of the likes of Sterling and Marcus Rashford in Amsterdam, with the Manchester City forward outstanding again against Italy, England struggle to score goals.

They have scored just twice in their past four friendlies and before Jesse Lingard struck against the Netherlands, Kane had scored seven of their previous 14 goals.

And this is why Lingard now not only looks a certainty to be on the plane to Russia but is also a contender to start in the World Cup.

Lingard showed his natural eye for a goal with that low strike in Amsterdam and he was at it again against Italy with quick-thinking to set up Jamie Vardy's goal.

Sterling now looks the sort of player who can offer England real thrust and threat in Russia while Rashford has the pace to punish any defence. Throw in Vardy's own lightning speed and eye for goal and Southgate has good options.

Kane, however, is the man whose marksmanship and maturity against the very best defences - as he proved in the Champions League this season - can make the difference for England.

With Kane to provide the end product, Southgate will feel confident England carry a goal threat.

He will, though, be monitoring every medical bulletin in detail as he recovers from his current ankle injury.

Good week for Southgate

Southgate has had a week to be happy with, both on and off the field.

He cuts a considered figure away from games and was brave enough to speak out against the racism he still believes exists in this country, insisting it was time to get "our own house in order" before flagging up potential problems in Russia at the World Cup.

He was also prepared to tackle head on bad behaviour by England's fans in Amsterdam while branding their jeering of the opposition national anthem as "unacceptable".

Southgate has also seen promising signs in these two friendlies - so he can move on to the next phase of his World Cup plans with satisfaction.

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