England ponder final pieces in jigsaw with World Cup looming

Qualifiers against Andorra and Hungary set to provide opportunities for fringe players to stake claim

There are times to ignore the footballing cliché to take each game as it comes. When the next match is against Andorra, England have reasons to cast their gaze a little further ahead, as far as Tuesday, certainly, when if they beat Hungary, they could all but seal their place in the 2022 World Cup. And to Qatar, where they will very probably be playing next year.

Since Steve McClaren inherited a hugely gifted group and contrived to fail to reach Euro 2008, England have excelled at qualifying, if not necessarily during the subsequent tournaments. Gareth Southgate has altered that: his World Cup and European Championships have felt triumphs of preparation, even if a pertinent criticism concerns his ability to think on his feet and change a defining game mid-match.

And so England’s remaining fixtures can feel further preparation for a World Cup with a difference, and not merely because it will be held in winter, partway through the domestic season. For European countries, this is a one-off: the first time major tournaments have been staged in successive years. The usual cycle has changed, with less time for revolution or rejuvenation.

Which should suit sides who flourished at Euro 2020, like England. There is still more case for continuity. Consider England’s age profile, and their oldest player is Kyle Walker, who remains absurdly quick, and all should be plausible choices in 2022. Then factor in the reality that squads were expanded to 26 in the summer for Covid times and only 23 will go to Qatar next year and it feels still harder for others to break in.

So while England are benefiting from the emergence of many a talent, it presents problems for those on the outside looking in. The demoted Nick Pope and Ben White, leapfrogged by Aaron Ramsdale and Fikayo Tomori respectively, are cases in point.

The precocious, uncapped Emile Smith Rowe plays in positions that Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Jesse Lingard, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling can occupy. As, indeed, can the overlooked Mason Greenwood, with Southgate citing his heavy workload with Manchester United as a reason for again omitting a wonderful natural finisher.

If Harry Kane may see a meeting with minnows Andorra on Saturday as a way to get closer to Wayne Rooney’s England record of 53 goals, for Tammy Abraham, renascent at Roma, and Ollie Watkins, who scored against San Marino in March but was cut from the Euros squad, the opponents may offer an opportunity to stake a case to understudy the captain, especially in the absence of the injured Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Patrick Bamford, now also sidelined, failed to take his opportunity against San Marino and those on the margins may not get too many more openings.

Two late additions to the squad could be candidates for future cuts. There was a time when James Ward-Prowse and Kalvin Phillips seemed to be jostling for position in the pecking order. The Southampton captain was a surprise omission from the Euro 2020 squad, while the Leeds man flourished. Ward-Prowse owes his inclusion now to Phillips’ absence but feels a back-up.

Ben Chilwell, meanwhile, had a frustrating summer, including 10 days in self-isolation after an ill-timed chat with Billy Gilmour, no minutes on the pitch and the discovery that he ranked as the third-choice left-back in a squad with only two specialists, courtesy of Kieran Trippier’s versatility. Factor in a bit-part role with Chelsea and Chilwell has a point to prove.

His recall now comes as Southgate is down to his last two right-backs, with four chosen last month and three starting the last time they faced Andorra. It feels safe to assume they cannot all go to Qatar.

Updated: October 9th 2021, 3:30 AM