England play their first of two scheduled friendlies ahead of this summer’s World Cup on Saturday, and many are still unsure who will make Gareth Southgate’s starting XI for the opening fixture against Tunisia.
It appears from the plethora of full backs that Southgate has selected to take to the World Cup that he will travel to Russia with the intention of playing with a back three, thus Saturday’s friendly against Nigeria is a good opportunity to further consolidate the philosophy that he has in mind.
It is admirable that Southgate is building his team around his own philosophy, but should it not come off in Russia, we might see him receive a lot of criticism for making players fit his system, and not the other way round.
Here is how England might look against Nigeria on Saturday…
1. GK – Jordan Pickford
There has been a lot of talk about who will start in goal for England this summer, and it looks like Jordan Pickford has come out on top ahead of Jack Butland and Nick Pope.
Over qualification and the recent friendlies against Italy and the Netherlands Southgate has attempted to instil a more passing orientated style of play to his England side. Pickford’s distribution is by far superior to the other keepers in England’s ranks.
On form Pope perhaps is the best choice, but the Burnley goalie has just one season of Premier League experience behind him, while Jack Butland’s relegation with Stoke puts him behind Pickford in the pecking order.
2. RWB – Kieran Trippier
Trippier has played well for Tottenham since Kyle Walker’s departure last summer. His experience playing at wing back for Spurs makes him the obvious choice, and that is without mentioning his tireless work rate and ability to put in a teasing cross.
Whether he is Gareth Southgate’s first choice for that position for the World Cup is not certain but the England manager is likely to give Trent Alexander-Arnold extra time off after his involvement with Liverpool in the Champions League final last Saturday.
3. CB – Kyle Walker
In friendlies against Italy and the Netherlands Walker played on the right of Southgate’s back three, a role which he is expected to play during the World Cup due to England’s lack of depth in central defence.
Walker needs time to become accustomed to his new position so should start against Nigeria to gain more match practice to better understand the new role.
4. CB – John Stones
As Southgate looks to implement a passing orientated style of play, John Stones is the likely suitor in the centre of the back line. Stones has not played a great deal of football for Manchester City since January so the game time in the friendlies against Nigeria and Costa Rica will be key in his preparation for the World Cup.
Stones is capable of carrying the ball out from defence to initiate an attack, yet the biggest problem England may have with him is his tendency to overplay. All too often Stones looks for the complicated pass rather than taking the simple option. If Southgate does not manage to coach this trait out of Stones’ game, he may make some high profile mistakes against Nigeria and in the World Cup.
5. CB – Gary Cahill
Left out for England’s previous friendlies against Italy and the Netherlands, Cahill found his way back into the Chelsea starting lineup in the closing stages of the season and performed well in the FA Cup final.
Cahill’s main competition for the starting berth is Harry Maguire, who has no doubt been the better performer over the course of the season. Yet Cahill’s experience playing in a back three gives him the advantage over Maguire, who isn’t accustomed to playing in that system despite his previous England appearances.
6. LWB – Danny Rose
Rose made just nine starts in the Premier League during the 2017/18 season, but few would argue that he isn’t England’s most talented option at left wing back especially with Ryan Bertrand out of the squad.
Of those selected, Rose is the only player natural to that position, which should be enough for him to start ahead of Ashley Young and Fabian Delph. Likewise, Rose needs to game time to improve his fitness ahead of the World Cup.
7. CM – Eric Dier
Dier is not a typically forward thinking midfielder and will be selected to protect the back line and cover for John Stones if he loses concentration. England’s backline looks frail, and the defensive mind of Dier will be important for their chances especially against more impressive teams.
Dier has been consistent for his club this season, and offers a more reliable option than either Fabian Delph or Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield.
8. CM – Jordan Henderson
The biggest decision for Southgate ahead of the game against Nigeria is whether or not to start Henderson.
Henderson is much more multi-dimensional than often given credit for. While not the dynamic skilful dribbler that many want, he is capable of picking a forward pass and he holds on to the ball exceptionally well.
The Liverpool central midfielder is more or less a nailed on starter for England at the World Cup and should start on Saturday if Southgate wants to play his best XI. But Henderson may need a weekend’s rest after Saturday’s disappointment in the Champions League final, and the upcoming friendlies are Southgate’s only opportunity to rest him ahead of the World Cup.
9. AM – Dele Alli
Southgate’s choice for the attacking midfield role is between Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli. Given the lack of creativity in this side, Alli is likely the midfielder Southgate will go with. Lingard has been impressive this season, yet the key part of his game is his work rate rather than creative flair.
With Henderson and Dier in midfield, that work rate is less necessary for whoever Southgate chooses, and Alli is the better option for games where England will have more of the ball, like against Nigeria. In terms of statistics, Alli has scored more than Lingard and registered more assists over the course of the season.
10. ST – Raheem Sterling
It would be a crime to omit Sterling from the starting lineup given the season he has had for Manchester City. Sterling scored 18 in 33 Premier League games during the 2017/18, making him an indispensable part of the team.
Though not typically a striker, his finishing has improved no end under Pep Guardiola, and the tactical awareness he has displayed should mean he will accustom to that position fairly comfortably.
11. ST- Harry Kane
As England’s captain, Kane is evidently Southgate’s first name on the team sheet and for good reason. His 30 strikes in the Premier League was his highest goal tally so far for a season.
A good performance against Nigeria may just give him the momentum to hit form in the tournament, and he could be the man to spearhead any chance England have of progressing in the competition.