By Jonathan Nagioff (@jonathannagioff)
After two impressive performances in international friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy, England manager Gareth Southgate has until June 4th to finalise the squad he will take to this year’s World Cup in Russia.
But who do the Bournemouth Rock’s sports team think should travel, and who should be left behind? Sports editor Jonathan Nagioff explains his choices.
Butland- Stoke City goalkeeper Butland will be in a straight shootout for the number 1 jersey in Russia with Everton shot stopper Jordan Pickford. Butland has endured a challenging season at relegation-bound Stoke, however has put in some commendable international performances. He arguably just edged Pickford on performance basis in the two recent friendlies, appearing confident and composed in the recent 1-1 draw with Italy at Wembley.
Pickford- Another credible candidate to start in goal on matchday one against Tunisia. The former Sunderland keeper has kept seven clean sheets in an indifferent season on Merseyside. However, there is no doubting that the 24-year-old has stepped up his game since last summer’s switch from Wearside and despite looking understandably nervous at moments during the 1-0 victory over the Netherlands, he remains in a fine position to claim the gloves. England boss Gareth Southgate has two more friendlies prior to the world cup, against Nigeria and Costa Rica on home soil which should ultimately give away his thinking of who his number one will be in Russia.
Hart- An unpopular pick and I’m certain many will disagree with this suggestion. The former Manchester City shot stopper has endured a disastrous season at struggling West Ham United and it’s fair to say that his return to English football hasn’t culminated in the success he achieved in his first spell at the Premier League champions-elect. Nevertheless, the 30-year-old provides something completely different to the other two picks. His wealth of experience, having been part of four major tournament final squads would provide invaluable education to the relatively inexperienced pair of Pickford and Butland. Burnley’s Nick Pope is the other obvious pick and is unquestionably more deserving of a spot, but if the unthinkable was to occur with both Pickford and Butland suffering injuries or suspensions during the tournament, then the safer and more sensible call would be to promote Hart, with 75 England caps to his name rather than draft in Pope, who is yet to put on a Three Lions jersey.
Walker- The Manchester City right-back is a certainty to be on that plane, but in which position remains the difficult conundrum. The big-money full back, who has enjoyed a stellar season at the Etihad Stadium since his switch from Tottenham Hotspur last summer has been a regular on the right flank but if the past two friendlies are anything to go by, he could be set to play as the right centre back, as part of a three-man defence. The 27-year-old adjusted superbly to the unfamiliar role against both Holland and Italy and provides the defence with huge pace should they be exposed. Walker is of course, far more effective in his natural position but with Kieran Trippier also having an impressive season as his replacement at Tottenham, Walker could find himself at centre-back in England’s first group game against Tunisia.
Cahill- Another pick which will have faces snarling. The seasoned centre-half might have had a tough season at the out of sort reigning champions, Chelsea but similarly to Hart his experience in a relatively young squad would be criminal to overlook. However, at 32-years-old and having been axed from the previous squad, he is facing a race against time to impress Southgate and with the emergence of youngsters such as Joe Gomez and James Tarkowski he might find this tournament to be a step too far, but personally I believe he has one more, major tournament swansong left in him.
Tarkowski- The Burnley star has emerged as a shock candidate to make Gareth Southgate’s 23-man party after an outstanding breakthrough season. The 25-year-old has been a key member of Sean Dyche’s backline since the departure of Michael Keane to Everton and had an eventful debut in the recent stalemate against Italy. Tarkowski was the culprit for the late Azzuri penalty, but overall more than proved his worth alongside John Stones. His relative inexperience is outweighed by his assurance on the ball and his no-nonsense style of defending, which could prove highly effective against the astute opposition which follows.
Young- The Manchester United winger-turned full back has forced his way back into international contention under Jose Mourinho, playing in a deeper role which has prolonged his 11 year on-and-off England career. Having been overlooked for international duty in the four years since starting every match at Euro 2012, the 32-year-old has been brought back into the fold and impressed against the Italians, almost scoring a fine solo goal, but for a last-ditch block by Leonardo Bonucci. For what he may lack in defensive prowess, he more than makes up for with pace and tricky dribbling going forward, which provides Southgate with an alternative option to playing an out-and-out left back.
Henderson- Not always the most revered Three Lions player, however the captain will start in Russia in a likely three-man midfield. Despite his lack of goals this season, he is viewed amongst England’s leadership as one of the more consistent members of the squad, despite his many critics.
Alli- The key man in the middle of the park, Tottenham’s Dele Alli could hold the key to any success England are to have in Eastern Europe this summer. Two more goals on Sunday away to Chelsea took Alli’s tally for the season to 12 goals, whilst boasting an impressive 14 assists. He will unquestionably play just behind Spurs teammate Harry Kane in what could be a lethal partnership, if their club form is anything to go by.
Loftus Cheek- The highly rated 22-year-old is the least likely midfielder mentioned to secure his seat on the plane to Russia, but his worth in a squad desperately lacking a player of his type could work in his favour. The Chelsea powerhouse, who is currently on loan at Crystal Palace has only just made his return from an ankle injury which left him on the treatment table for almost three months, however he gave Southgate much to ponder after two highly refreshing displays against both Germany and Brazil in November. The 6”3 midfielder dominated proceedings in the middle of the park in both matches and caught the eye with his imposing style and bursting runs. He faces a race against time to prove himself in the closing embers of the season, but his versatility and commanding presence would provide the team with a strong, dynamic box-to-box threat, as proven in his two previous appearances.
Kane- England’s main man up front. Harry Kane is having another stellar season in front of goal, amassing an outstanding return of 39 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions. The 24-year-old gave the England hierarchy and fans alike a major scare when he limped out of Tottenham’s 4-1 win over Bournemouth earlier this month. Fortunately, however scans revealed the talisman had suffered only minor ankle ligament damage and he has since made his return to the fold. Kane has Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah in his sights as he chases third consecutive golden boot before the season concludes with the Spurs forward on 24 goals, just five strikes separating him and the Egyptian. The pressure will be firmly on his shoulders to deliver in Russia, especially following his disappointing first tournament at Euro 2016.
Welbeck- Perhaps, another unpopular pick. But the decision of whether to select another defensive minded player or to increase the attacking prowess of the squad has led me to pick another forward. Whilst not the most prolific in an Arsenal shirt, Welbeck has faired far better internationally. He was his country’s top goal scorer in qualifying for Euro 2016 and his versatility could see him sneak his way into Southgate’s final squad. The former Manchester United forward is seen as more of a deputy to the other three strikers but could be deployed to the left-hand side, a position he often plays at club level in the event of an injury.