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Predicting England's 2022 World Cup squad
It's getting close enough to put my cards on the table.
The essence of this game is that it’s inevitably a fool’s errand. I don’t know who will get injured, who will pick up form, who will inexplicably do something to shoot himself in the foot. Even ignoring all of that, I still don’t know Gareth Southgate’s inner thoughts.
But what I do know is a general sense of how Southgate has gone about things since he took over as England manager in 2016. It’d be a surprise if he suddenly threw all of that out the window for what is probably his most important tournament yet. This is the World Cup that the English FA once set a target of winning, though they have since dramatically walked that back. I’m not going to make any bold claims here, as much as some of you would surely love me to so you can then screenshot and show me it if England’s players embarrass themselves in November.
Let’s be clear on the basics of Southgate’s aims:
England often switch between back three and back four systems. The default has been 4-2-3-1 and sometimes 3-4-3, though this season he’s experimented with 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 shapes. Most importantly, he will want a squad with the flexibility to play different systems.
Southgate has generally been happy with the way his team has played over the last few years. Mistakes were made in the Euro 2020 final, but I’ve never had the sense he blames his players for that. This group has done all that he’s asked of them, and he will want to keep the core of that side together. Yes, form is important, but international form matters as well as club form.
He will want to keep the good atmosphere in the dressing room. “We’ve got a brilliant group of lads here”, Jack Grealish claimed (not a neutral observer, but still interesting). “I’ve read people saying that [the players] ten, fifteen years ago didn’t like coming away with England. Honestly, we all love it. I swear we absolutely love coming away, we are such a tight group.” Southgate and his players have banished the “Golden Generation” dressing room issues. A drastic squad overhaul might upset that.
No, I don’t think he’s suddenly going to become an attacking manager. We can argue all day about the correct approach, but England are not going to cram all the exciting names in there.
Now let’s look at the players. I should stress this is who I think Southgate will pick, not who I would personally choose.
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There’s actually a little bit of a contest in goal for the first time in a while. Both names will be on the plane, though. Jordan Pickford has been a reliable performer with England throughout the ups and downs with Everton. Since the start of 2020, England have conceded seven goals in 23 competitive games. Pickford has kept 12 clean sheets in that time and never conceded more than one goal in a single match. He’s been a familiar part of an effective defensive unit.
Few will argue, though, that Aaron Ramsdale is in better club form. Unlike some English goalkeepers, he’s comfortable enough with his feet that he can slot straight in without issue there. I can’t imagine he would struggle in an England shirt, but the problem is that we just haven’t seen it enough. He was really unlucky to get injured just before the March internationals, where he would’ve almost certainly started against Ivory Coast and potentially started to challenge Pickford for the number one spot. He has fewer opportunities to impress now, but he’ll be in the squad at the very least.
Nick Pope will probably be next. He’s really struggled with the ball at his feet when in an England shirt, but third-choice goalkeeper is by far the least important member of an international squad. If you’re getting really worked up about the third choice ‘keeper, please get a life.
Then we get to centre back, and some more controversy. Harry Maguire and John Stones have started regularly for England over the last few years. The England fans booing Maguire at Wembley drew shock precisely because he’s been so reliable for his country. I can’t imagine a world where he’s fit but doesn’t go to Qatar.
Stones is still very likely to go, but he’s more likely to be dropped than Maguire. He’s been third-choice for Manchester City behind Rúben Dias and Aymeric Laporte, who have formed a strong partnership. His England performances have been decent, but not quite as dominant as Maguire’s form. This might be one to watch.
For his backup options, Southgate has got himself into a tough spot. He took Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings to Euro 2020 primarily because they’ve become core members of the “leadership group”. I don’t think he can really justify taking both of them to Qatar based on performances, and they’re probably fighting for one place. Of the pair, I think Mings is much more likely to make the cut, primarily because he’s left-footed and more tactically flexible than Coady, who really does need to be in the middle of a back three.
That leaves one more centre back option, and it seems as though Ben White has put himself in the driving seat. He’s been part of the setup for much longer than his main challenger Marc Guéhi, and that should give him the edge. I think either fit into the side quite naturally, and it wouldn’t totally shock me if White or even Guéhi started over Stones. For reasons I don’t understand, it looks like Southgate just doesn’t fancy Fikayo Tomori. He first broke into the squad all the way back in 2019 and made a return this autumn, so we can dispel the idea Southgate just doesn’t know what he’s been up to in Italy. Seemingly, Southgate just didn’t like what he saw in training. It’s a mystery we might never know the answer to.
Stones and Maguire as a pair can be desperately short on pace. This hasn’t been a huge problem mainly because Kyle Walker has been next to them at right back. It’s not what most want to hear, but Pickford, Walker, Stones and Maguire have been at the core of England’s very strong defensive record. These players are equally comfortable in a back three or four, and Walker’s recovery pace complements Stones and Maguire perfectly. They have that thing so often missing at international level: familiarity.
It’s a really close run thing between the two more exciting options for the next spot. Reece James can slot into Walker’s role pretty naturally, whereas Trent Alexander-Arnold would offer something very different. Southgate said he wanted to take a look at both players over the March friendlies, but both pulled out, leaving everyone back at square one. I think Southgate honestly doesn’t know. I’ll go with the variety of Alexander-Arnold, but I would not be shocked either way.
Luke Shaw is the first choice left back and I doubt that will change. Yes, like Maguire, he has been suspect this season for Man Utd, but he’s been very good for England ever since his return to the squad in the past twelve months. He will go and start. The debate is over the second choice. Ben Chilwell is the obvious candidate and Tyrick Mitchell has emerged as a contender. But I think Southgate will fudge it and pick his favoured lieutenant Kieran Trippier as a left back. He’s done well there for England as a more defensive option, and can easily play right wing-back if needed. Southgate will want to find room for him, as much as the public may groan.
Onto the midfield and Declan Rice is probably the second name on the teamsheet right now. While he’s become more of a box-to-box option for West Ham, he remains very much a sitting midfielder for England (which is probably what he’ll eventually do at his next club). He’s matured into a very good holding player, but I personally think he suits a double pivot better than the lone sitting role. England have recently tried a midfield three and I’m not sure he covers enough ground to play as a lone pivot the way Southgate wants. In that case, he’ll need a partner. Kalvin Phillips did that job at the European Championships, coming in late due to Jordan Henderson’s injury, but did well enough that he kept his place in the autumn qualifiers despite the Liverpool man regaining full fitness. If Southgate is all in on the single pivot, though, I wouldn’t be stunned if Phillips dropped out. I think Henderson is very likely to go in part because he’s seen as a key figure in the leadership group. If Southgate has to give up on Coady, he’s definitely taking Henderson.
The midfielder I’d most like to see start alongside Rice, though, is Jude Bellingham. He started against Ivory Coast recently, but as more of a box-to-box player next to James Ward-Prowse, with Rice sitting. It might be that Southgate doesn’t completely trust Bellingham in a double pivot and this would make sense, as Borussia Dortmund aren’t exactly the most defensively secure team in the world. I’m sure he will be on the plane, but his exact fit still isn’t certain.
Mason Mount is another sure thing. He’s someone Southgate, like every manager he’s played for, seems to trust completely. He can play in a midfield three or as a ten, and England have actually used him as a hybrid of those two roles at times. I’m sure Southgate sees him as one of his most important players, with his tactical intelligence crucial in linking the midfield and forward line nicely. He’s going to the World Cup.
This one is a little bit more controversial not because of anything the player has done, but because it takes away a spot for the wide players. Conor Gallagher seems to be rising in everyone’s estimation day by day. At 22 years old, he reminds me a lot of a former Southgate favourite Dele Alli at the same age. He started the friendly against Switzerland where England actually reverted to the 3-5-2 shape from the 2018 World Cup. I’ve probably written about that team more than any other in the history of football, but here’s the gist of it:
Jordan Henderson played just in front of the back three, with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard as “free eights” pushing up to join the attack. Henderson’s role had to be about covering plenty of ground as the other two pushed up, which he was perfectly suited to. Lingard and Dele both understood space intelligently and looked to make runs into the box rather than sitting. All three were hard workers, and there’d be no issue with a lack of effort.
If Southgate wants this option then the combination of Mount and Gallagher is even better than Dele and Lingard were. I think he’s really taken a liking to Gallagher similar to the way he did Mount, and I now expect both to go to Qatar.
In the wide roles, you can be all but certain that Raheem Sterling is in the team as well as on the plane. No matter what has been happening at Man City, Southgate has always backed Sterling. He was vindicated for this last summer, as the winger was England’s best player despite his poorest club season in several years. His famous “have I justified my selection?” response told a secret truth: Southgate was always certain to start Sterling and had communicated that to the player. From late 2018 onwards he’s been one of England’s most consistent performers, and I can’t see Southgate changing things there.
It’s gone under the radar a little, but Jack Grealish has become a more important player since the Euros last summer. Southgate now seems to view him as a first-choice pick on the left, with Sterling playing on the right. Cynics will say it’s “big club bias” to put him in now, but I think Southgate honestly views Grealish as the X-factor England often missed last summer and regrets using him so sparingly. We know what Grealish is about – outstanding ball-carrying quality dragging opponents towards him combined with excellent creative passing – but I think he’s been better at Man City than most think. Yes, the goals haven’t been there, but Pep Guardiola is right that he’s offering an awful lot beyond that. His ball-dominant style and “gravity” complement Sterling and Mount perfectly.
Phil Foden is almost certainly going, but we still haven’t quite seen him play at his Man City level for the Three Lions. He’s been used as a second striker recently after being tried as a central midfielder in the autumn, and out wide before that. I don’t think anyone knows what Foden at his best looks like in an England shirt, but I’d be shocked if Southgate stops trying to solve that puzzle.
Bukayo Saka has put himself ahead of Manchester United pair Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, as well as Arsenal team-mate Emile Smith-Rowe, for the last wide spot. It was obvious last summer that Southgate likes Saka, and he’s playing better than ever at club level. This is the place where the constraints of the 23-man squad matters. Assuming he’ll want two strikers, this leaves Saka as the last winger England can fit in.
Sancho has improved over the course of this season and has been one of the few bright spots in Ralf Rangnick’s disappointing time at Old Trafford. That must put him ahead of Rashford, who just hasn’t looked like himself recently. Smith-Rowe is another who Southgate likes, and the most recent squad suggests he’s rated above Sancho and Rashford, but I think he’s behind the others already named.
Obviously, Harry Kane is the captain and first-choice striker. Even in his poor first half of the season at Spurs, he was still scoring goals for England. There’s really very little to say here. You know and I know that he’ll start that first game in Qatar as long as he’s fit. The pertinent question is about his backup, and it looks like a two-horse race right now. Ollie Watkins scored against Ivory Coast and made a strong impression, but he only made it into the squad after Tammy Abraham pulled out through injury. I think Southgate has always liked Abraham and looked for reasons to include him, but the lack of minutes and/or goals at Chelsea made that difficult. Right now he’s playing and scoring for Roma, so I expect him to come straight into the squad.
That’s the 23, and I look forward to seeing all the things I got wrong in November.
Predicted final squad:
The next five players most likely to get on the plane: