For much of Gareth Southgate’s lifetime, England have been better at qualifying for World Cups than playing in them.
One of the outstanding results of his playing career, when Southgate formed part of the resistance in a 0-0 draw with Italy in Rome, booked a place in the 1998 tournament. He was an unused substitute when David Beckham’s free kick secured a dramatic draw with Greece to guarantee their spot in the 2002 World Cup.
Each was a nervy affair. As manager, Southgate steered England to the 2018 World Cup with a game to spare. In effect, with their last fixture against San Marino, they had ensured they would be at this winter’s World Cup before their final match. The harder part, as Southgate knows, is going far against the world’s best. Expert planning, both in terms of formation and set-pieces, took them to a first semi-final on the global stage in 28 years in Russia.
If Southgate’s preparations start for Qatar now, with Switzerland and Ivory Coast awaiting in friendlies, the sense is that some of the groundwork must be done early. The Premier League only pauses eight days before the World Cup begins in November. Training-ground work in March may need to be remembered for the next nine months. Lacking the luxury of many friendlies, Southgate will have to make his mind up earlier.
As England are blessed with riches in plenty of positions, some of his decisions are enviable. Yet his attempts to experiment and learn have been hampered by withdrawals now.
Kyle Walker was rested to allow younger right-backs a chance and one of the more valid criticisms of Southgate was an inability to get Trent Alexander-Arnold to replicate his remarkable Liverpool form. If the Merseysider and Reece James looked the younger alternatives to Walker and the injured Kieran Trippier, both were then sidelined. It is hard to see how the late call-up Kyle Walker-Peters can get into the finals squad. The uncapped Tyrick Mitchell at least has fewer players to leapfrog on the left.
The loss of Aaron Ramsdale removed the chance to test a rival to Jordan Pickford for the goalkeeper’s spot. With Tammy Abraham also out, Ollie Watkins may get an opportunity to show he can be Harry Kane’s understudy. Both Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Marcus Rashford have had injury-hit, underwhelming seasons and a place may be up for grabs. Perhaps, however, Southgate’s eventual verdict may be that a versatile player like Raheem Sterling or Phil Foden could be both the back-up striker and a potential first choice elsewhere.
That both Rashford and Jadon Sancho were omitted may bode worse for the latter: he was not picked even when in form. He does not have Rashford’s status as a Southgate favourite and England have a host of options on the flanks. Bukayo Saka is out after testing positive for coronavirus, increasing the likelihood Emile Smith Rowe will instead get a chance to stake his claim against Switzerland on Saturday..
In midfield, Conor Gallagher is another who has merited selection with his form in the Premier League this season. He could be a deputy to Mason Mount, another who could fill the most attacking midfielder’s role in a 4-3-3 but who is unlikely to start in a duo who largely operate behind the ball.
And the choice of six centre-backs in the squad suggests Southgate will use 3-4-3 in the next two games. Certainly Tyrone Mings, Conor Coady, Ben White and the uncapped Marc Guehi should realise it is unlikely they all go to the World Cup. For several in the England squad, the competition in the next week is not with Switzerland and Ivory Coast as much as with each other.