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The Plane to Russia - An England perspective
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The Plane to Russia - An England perspective

Here we go again! After another dour qualification campaign in which England managed to make Slovenia look like a top side, they've now gone and got 0-0 results against Germany and Brazil; with chances to win both games. All of a sudden the phrase "this could be our year" can be heard all over England, again. Why are you doing it to yourselves, people?

Realistically, I think the best England can hope for is the semi finals if they avoid the big hitters; Germany, Spain and France. Even if England do manage to avoid those teams they will still have to negotiate their way past great teams such as Brazil, Portugal, Belgium and Argentina.

Who will Gareth Southgate have with him on the plane to Russia though?

Well first off, let's tackle the obvious ones. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Jake Livermore, Eric Dier, Ryan Bertrand, John Stones, Kyle Walker and Joe Hart. They will all be going if they are even half fit. Southgate has shown remarkable loyalty to those players throughout the qualifying campaign so it will be no surprise when they are all named in the final 23 man squad. To pretend they won't be going, is to live in denial. They are in the main, England's best players who do deserve to go anyway. Hart and Livermore probably wouldn't be my picks, but the rest I'll happily concede, aren't bad players.

Strikers:

As well as Kane and Rashford, it is pretty fair to say that Southgate will take at least 2 more strikers. Those who have played for England recently include Jermaine Defoe, Tammy Abraham, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Dominic Solanke.

Cross Defoe out now. This season he has looked bang average. He will not be going unless he starts slamming them in at almost a goal per game ratio for Bournemouth.

Vardy has played a lot of football since 2015, but still looks like a one season wonder. His decision making on the ball is Championship standard at best. All he has is pace and aggression coupled with a decent work rate. Even his finishing is erratic. He simply looks to blast it as hard as he can. However, Southgate has continued to pick him, so don't be surprised if he is on the plane. It'd be frustrating to watch if he is, because he wasted at least 4 opportunities on the break against Brazil alone, by making terrible decisions on the ball.

Abraham should be in direct competition with Vardy. He is another rapid striker who relishes a battle. Less aggressive than Vardy, he makes up for that with his powerful frame. Abraham though, has excellent decision making skills, and looks like a far more gifted and well rounded footballer. For me, he should be on the plane ahead of Vardy. He looks like he could keep Swansea up on his own, and Chelsea will be enjoying every minute of it.

Sturridge is a bit of a weird one. When he plays he can sometimes look lethal, and other times look disinterested and as though injuries have taken their toll. In terms of raw ability, he is the only striker England have anywhere near Kane's level. However, can you trust him to be fit for a whole tournament, with a game every 3 days? I think sadly for Sturridge, his England career looks dead. It's time to move on.

Solanke is the perfect replacement for Sturridge in the squad. For a big man, he has incredible footwork and the weight of his passing is brilliant. Add that to his ability to somehow crop up in the right place at the right time, and the fact he has actually won a World Cup in the last 6 months, this is a no brainer. If Solanke is not on that plane instead of Sturridge, Southgate has bottled it.

So the 4 strikers i would like to see on the plane are Kane, Rashford, Abraham and Solanke. If Vardy, Defoe or Sturridge go, it'll be very disappointing for England fans. There are 4 potentially top class young strikers available, so to pick lesser players nearer to retirement than to deserving a World Cup place would be criminal.

Attacking midfielders:

Alli and Sterling may be certainties to be in the squad, but after them England have an array of talent! We have seen the likes of Adam Lallana, Jesse Lingard, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all put in some great displays. It is for that reason that i expect at least 3 of these 4 players will be picked. It also gives Southgate tactical options with how to set up the attack.

Loftus-Cheek, in my opinion, has played his way into the squad. His passing is top class, he seems to glide about the pitch, and his man of the match performance against Germany should see him get picked. Let's just hope Crystal Palace don't drag him down. If Chelsea don't make a place for him next season, he will be off because he is too good for loans to relegation fodder.

Oxlade-Chamberlain will also almost definitely be on the plane. Not only has he been picked repeatedly on the right side of the attack every time Southgate has played 4-2-3-1, he can also play as a right wing back/right midfielder. That kind of versatility to play in both of the managers preferred systems, gives him a great chance. Especially if he can keep up the form he's currently showing at club level.

Lingard is a little more touch and go. He looks great whenever he plays, but for some reason neither Jose Mourinho or Southgate seem to trust him enough to be a regular. It is very weird because his direct style is great to watch. He should've buried his chance against Germany. That may have put him on the plane (scoring a winner against the current World Champions). As it goes, he missed horribly and failed to convince anybody either way. I'd take him instead of a third goal keeper (never understood that) but that won't happen in reality.

Lallana is likely to be in direct competition with Lingard in Southgate's thoughts. Right now, Lingard is probably edging it on account of the fact that Lallana hasn't played this season. With him now being fit and looking to get back into the Liverpool team though, he will probably take Lingard's place in the squad if he can find form and fitness. Lallana is completely different to anybody else England have, whereas Lingard is very similar to Oxlade-Chamberlain (but less versatile) and Sterling (but less clinical). Lallana's issue is he get's injured almost every time he plays for England!

Therefore the 5 attackers i expect to see heading to Russia are Alli, Sterling, Loftus-Cheek, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana.

Defensive midfielders:

With Henderson, Dier and Livermore's seats on the private jet already name tagged, there is probably only room for 1 more midfielder. Lewis Cook, James Milner, Jack Wilshere, Danny Drinkwater, Nathaniel Chalobah and Harry Winks will be the main contenders for the spot.

Cook was in the last squad, but only really because of injury drop outs. I doubt he will go as he isn't even a Bournemouth regular. Decent player though and one for the future.

Drinkwater has probably just put a nail in the coffin for his England career by rejecting a call up last week. I don't blame him though. It can't be nice to be an after, after thought! I'd have him instead of Livermore as he has a better passing range.

Milner has barely played for England in years now, but he hasn't actually retired yet and has started playing in midfield again this season at club level. Let's hope Southgate doesn't consider him though. England need new blood. Not the tried, tested and disappointed.

Wilshere should not be anywhere near this squad. He is a terrible midfielder, who is petulant and lacks discipline. As good as he is on the ball, he thinks he is even better and constantly over runs it or tries too much. Arsene Wenger says he is ready to be picked for England, but that is probably just to maximise his value. If he is so good, why won't Wenger pick him for Arsenal? Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka are hardly the epitome of midfield class!

Chalobah started very well this season and has since gotten injured. If he comes back fighting he may have a chance at getting back into Southgate's plans. I think his World Cup dreams might be over though. He is a very good player though who offers more power in midfield than any of the 3 who are certain to be picked. He has a fighting chance.

Winks is the most likely reason for Chalobah's dream being over. He played against Real Madrid last month and looked completely comfortable. With a manager like Mauricio Pochettino, you know he will be well nurtured and get plenty of chances in the Tottenham Hotspur first team. I will be amazed if he isn't picked. He is quite simply composed on the ball. Not panicking is something English midfielders struggle with so if they were trying to hold on to a lead by keeping possession, Winks would be invaluable.

So more by expectation than choice, the 4 midfielders I'd like to see are Henderson, Dier, Livermore and Winks. I don't fully agree with Dier being in midfield (i prefer him in the back 3) or Livermore being in the squad, but Southgate values defensive solidarity higher than flair. Henderson is very likely to be the captain, which will enrage lots of fans no doubt; even some Liverpool fans. That is a debate on it's own though!

Wing backs/wide midfielders:

It is pretty debateable whether England's new formation is 3-4-3 with wide midfielders or a 5-2-3 with wing backs. In truth, there really is not a lot of difference regardless of how you dress it up. Bertrand and Walker will be going though. With Oxlade-Chamberlain able to cover (and one of the centre backs who will be mentioned later), it's likely only one more player will be picked here. Ashley Young, Danny Rose, Nathaniel Clyne and Keiran Trippier will be the favourites.

Young has had something of a resurgence at Manchester United this season. With Luke Shaw looking as far from a £30m player as you can get, Mourinho has turned to Young and he has responded brilliantly. He seems to be reading the game better than you would expect and his pace, although not what it was, still helps him to get back to make some important defensive actions. His delivery from wide areas is the main reason he'd be my pick. Plus he can play on the right of the left.

Rose is the clear favourite of these three, purely because if he is fit and on form he is arguably a better wing back than Bertrand. He really needs to prove himself again though after a long time injured. He has created unwanted problems for himself with his comments in the summer, as Pochettino may be reluctant to play him. If he doesn't play, Southgate won't pick him. Rose does have the advantage of being able to play in midfield as well though. It is still very likely he'll get back in the team at club level and force his way onto the plane to Russia.

Clyne has got to be an inside joke, surely. How is a player who can't pass, head, shoot, cross, or control a football, a top flight footballer? He has effectively lost his place at club level to an 18 year old midfielder and a 20 year old centre back. Even if it has been dressed up as a mysterious injury, make no mistake, he is not wanted. So i highly doubt he will be picked for England, and there won't be any complaints. A horrifically over rated player. He doesn't even defend to a decent standard. Still, it gives us Sunday League players hope, that we still have a chance of playing for England one day!

Trippier for me is a better player than Walker. His delivery is better and he defends marginally better. However, Southgate trusts Walker, and Walker is very fit. He won't need resting and he rarely gets injured. So Trippier probably isn't going to get picked sadly. A real shame in my opinion, because his first time delivery is the best in the Premier League. Not just from English players either. To be fair to Walker though, his pace makes him equally effective in the wing back role.

With all this in mind it is likely that the 3 wing backs chosen will be Walker, Bertrand and Rose. That is not a bad set of players, nonetheless.

Centre back:

Aside from Stones, it is pretty much impossible to call who definitely will and won't go. Joe Gomez, Harry Maguire, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill and Michael Keane are those in the running. It is likely only 3 more will be picked on top of Stones, as both Bertrand and Dier can cover here if necessary.

Gomez put in a man of the match performance against Brazil keeping Marcelo and Neymar quiet for 90 minutes. Added to the fact he has made himself first choice at Liverpool (in a custom role where he is a right back but a right centre back at times in a game), his international debut should see him onto the plane. His ability to play right back is part of the reason why i think Southgate will only pick 3 wing backs. In the unlikely scenario that Walker gets injured, Gomez can just move to right back to create a back 4.

Maguire was slightly less impressive in the recent friendlies than Stones and Gomez, but still played well. On the ball, he looks very good. He can break forward with the ball or launch a counter attack with a raking diagonal pass. That ability on the ball does somewhat make up for his total ineptitude defensively, but not entirely. In a back 3, he is protected well enough though so he will probably be picked. With a lack of creativity in central midfield, his passing is actually pretty critical for England.

Jones is probably going to get picked if fit. Though that is a big 'if' because he seems totally incapable of playing 5 games without at least getting a knock. A lot of that is down to his physical style of play though. In truth, he is arguably England's best natural defender, but that is largely because Gomez, Stones and Maguire are all more ball playing centre backs. Jones is as majestic as a wild boar dragging a drum set through the African Bush, whilst singing "Hakuna Matata". You have to say though, he is effective.

Smalling in contrast to his club mate, is totally ineffective. He looks like he should be the complete package from his physical appearance, but he just isn't. I'll be amazed if he is picked; not least because he looks lost in a back 3.

Cahill is quite simply past it. He should not be picked, though it wouldn't totally surprise me as he was once considered for the captaincy when Wayne Rooney first retired. Since then younger and better defenders have stepped up to the mark and for that reason Cahill should not be going to Russia. Like Smalling, he also looks uncomfortable playing in an expansive back 3, hence why Chelsea have tried to replace him.

Keane is just a massive no from me. He is bad on the ball, clumsy defensively and playing so badly at club level that he has been dropped for Phil Jagielka in some games recently. He is a big part of the reason why Everton can't defend. If he is even picked in the provisional 30 man squad I'll eat his Everton shirt. Most Everton fans would be happy if the club didn't give him a replacement!

It is pretty predictable that right now Stones, Maguire, Gomez and Jones will be the 4 dedicated centre backs chosen. Though don't be entirely surprised if Maguire makes a mistake that gets him dropped for Dier at some point in the tournament, with Livermore replacing Dier in midfield! Jones and Cahill could go either way though to be honest. I really hope it is Jones who is picked. In a back 4, he would be the best option England have alongside Stones.

Goal keepers:

Much as we all may not rate him, Hart just keeps on getting picked. 75 England caps and not even good enough for a bottom 5 West Ham team. How has he done that? He really should thank his agent (and the shampoo industry) that he's managed to stay relative. Anyway, there will be 2 more keepers going. Fraser Forster, Ben Foster, Tom Heaton, Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford will be the favourites.

Forster has been terrible for Southampton. His recent performances have been giving the fans nightmares and it seems to have finally dawned on the England set up that being able to hit your head on the cross bar without jumping isn't a prerequisite of a good goal keeper; especially not when Forster could probably do that, knock himself out, and save more shots than he does by actually trying. He is, without exception, the worst first choice keeper in the Premier League and his England career finally looks over (thank god).

Foster is just a run of the mill, reliable keeper. He doesn't make many mistakes, but he also won't make an unbelievable save. He does what is expected of an average top flight keeper and he has found his level in mid table. He's far too uncomfortable with his feet to be playing in a team which dominates possession though. Against the weaker sides, England will be expected to do that. Foster will not be picked unless there is a major injury crisis.

Tom Heaton looks unlikely to go to Russia because whilst out injured he has lost his place to Nick Pope! It is a shame for Pope that international managers are so stubborn and have favourites. He has easily been the best English goal keeper this season. It's very unlikely Heaton or Pope will be going to Russia. Both Burnley men are good enough though.

Butland is on a knife edge. He was supposed to play in the friendlies just gone, but broke his hand. Having already missed far too much football through injury recently, that was the last thing he needed. He is at risk of not being picked if he doesn't get fit and rediscover his pre-injury form. Even when fit this season he has looked every bit at home in a poor Stoke City team. He is the best English keeper on talent, but on current form he will not deserve to go to Russia, even though he'll probably be picked anyway.

Pickford almost definitely will be in the squad. He was a lot of peoples man of the match against Germany, and he is first choice at Everton this season. In fact at times, he has been the only thing keeping Everton afloat. His kicking is his best and his worst attribute though. When he gets it right his kicks are flat but accurate. That driven precision makes them perfect for springing a counter attack. However that same flatness to his kicks can gift opposition teams possession in dangerous areas when he gets them wrong. Aside from that, he is a pretty average keeper right now, but he is still young and deserves a place.

It is pretty much a certainty that Pickford will join Hart on the plane this coming Summer, but the 3rd choice keeper spot could go down to the wire. It is likely going to end up being Butland, but if Pope carries on the way he is playing right now, he may give Southgate no choice but to pick him.

So my half predicted, half hopeful 23 man squad to travel to Russia is as follows.
Strikers:
Kane, Rashford, Abraham, Solanke
Attacking midfielders:
Alli, Sterling, Lallana, Loftus-Cheek, Oxlade-Chamberlain
Defensive midfielders:
Henderson, Dier, Livermore, Winks
Wing backs:
Walker, Bertrand, Rose
Centre backs:
Stones, Gomez, Maguire, Jones
Goal keepers:
Hart, Pickford, Butland

Let's hope that Southgate really does have the bottle to pick the likes of Abraham, Solanke, Loftus-Cheek, Winks and Gomez. England fans will breath a collective sigh of disgust if the squad is announced and they see past-it-players like Vardy, Defoe, Sturridge, Wilshere, Milner, Cahill etc. There are still some things i would do differently to the 23 men above, but I've tried to be realistic without being unoriginal. There is no point even speculating on International managers not picking their favourites though.

Just to finish, i will put forward 2 wild card options.

The first is Rhian Brewster. The young Lions striker scored 8 goals in the u17's World Cup taking the Golden Boot award as England's kids romped to victory. He has yet to make his senior debut at club level, but if he does get a chance, there may be no stopping him. He is a goal scorer of limitless potential.

The second is none other than Phil Foden. The Manchester City youngster looks like he is already the most technically gifted English player around, and he won the Golden Ball award in the same u17's World Cup that Brewster starred in. You have to play pretty well to take the player of the tournament off of a striker who scored 8! Write Foden off at your own peril because if he gets a chance at club level, it will be impossible for him to look bad in Pep Guardiola's ruthless machine.

Thank you for reading. Let's just hope England don't embarrass themselves! (let's be honest, it can't be worse than last time)

Written by Adam Jones

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