As is always the case, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. The World Cup 2022 odds have Southgate’s men as fourth favourites behind Brazil, Argentina and France, and they are definitely one of a handful of sides who could be victorious in the Middle East’s first tournament. The England head coach has several questions, however, many of which were not only not answered by the two games in the Nations League, but were actually made harder in the matches against Italy and Germany.
The biggest issue is the defence, and not just in the shape of Harry Maguire, but right across it. Starting with Maguire, the two errors at Wembley will have caused grave concerns in the England management about whether the Manchester United player will be ready mentally for the World Cup. Southgate is loyal to those players who have played well for him before, and Maguire definitely fits into that box. The pressure on the centre-back if he is picked against Iran on England’s World Cup opener on the 21st of November will be enormous, and it may be an added distraction Southgate and his team do not need. Muddying the water further is that Maguire has not been playing for United, a situation that won’t be helped by the fact he also suffered an injury in the Germany game.
John Stones, who looked a nailed-on starter in Qatar, suffered a hamstring injury at Wembley, so all eyes will be on his recovery or otherwise at Manchester City. There is no shortage of capable replacements, but the worry will be the lack of experienced partnerships.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is another player with a question mark over his head, but for a different reason. The Liverpool fullback is a remarkable talent, but there are three equally fantastic players in front of him, all of whom have the benefit of having pulled on the England shirt in recent games. Southgate obviously likes Walker, James and Trippier, so if Alexander-Arnold does go, you have to think it will only be as over.
Between the sticks
Southgate will not be sure who will be on the plane to Qatar.
Jordan Pickford comes under more flak than a player who has unquestionably been the best ‘keeper in the country for two years should do. Certainly, every time he has pulled on that Number 1 England jersey he has been at worst good, and very often exceptional. If the Everton glovesman were to miss the tournament or a game in Qatar, there are a number of players in the mix. Top of that list was Newcastle’s Nick Pope. The Nations League games highlighted his vulnerability with his feet, however, and the mistake that gifted Germany their equaliser will not have done his chances, or Southgate’s stress levels much good.
The Second Striker
If England fans are hoping any player has an injury free build up to Qatar, then that has to be Harry Kane. Brentford’s Ivan Toney, who behind Erling Haaland has been the standout striker in the EPL this season, got called up to the squad but didn’t get a minute of game time in Italy or at Wembley. Rashford has been out of form, but is showing signs that he is at least getting back to his best. Tammy Abraham has been playing very well at Roma, but suffered the same fate as Toney. Dominic Calvert-Lewin is another option, but the Everton forward has been injured for much of the last six months and his fitness has to be a concern.
England have been dealt a relatively easy group, with three games, including one against Christian Pulisic’s USA that they will be confident of winning, and of being able to build some momentum. Whether Southgate will go into those games with the dilemmas above sorted out, or will see them as the place to fix them, remains to be seen.