As the international week gets under way, Gareth Southgate can be largely happy with the progress of his side since the World Cup.
However, the midfield remains problematic. Southgate has switched from 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 formation, and England now have a lot of options for the midfield trio but little time to decide who fits in ahead of likely qualification for Euro 2020.
With a likely six places in the squad up for grabs, we look at the differing options Southgate has and the one-on-one competition for places in England squad’s for next summer’s European Championships.
Declan Rice or Eric Dier
Southgate’s 4-3-3 system relies on the holding midfielder protecting the back four and dropping into a back three when England have possession, enabling the fullbacks to push up.
Dier initially held this role and had been a Southgate regular. Dier has proved a useful utility player, but hasn’t played a minute so far this season at Spurs and was left out of the latest England squad.
Rice has only three caps but has overtaken Dier in the pecking order, following his controversial switch from the Republic of Ireland.
Rice offers excellent coverage skills and is a perfect system fit. However, he still has plenty to prove at international level and struggled badly against Frenkie De Jong.
Harry Winks, Lewis Cook or Fabian Delph
This has proved a tricky role to fill with Southgate gradually transitioning England to a possession-based side. Delph proved woefully inadequate at setting the midfield tempo in the Nations League semi final.
Winks has been recalled after injury and offers a defensive base and the ability to transition the team from defence to attack. The Tottenham man looks a key player for Southgate, but has proved injury prone.
Another option could be Lewis Cook, once the Bournemouth man returns from his ACL injury. Cook offers a similar passing range to Winks and has played this role successfully at youth level.
However, Cook is in a race against time to regain full fitness and force his way into Southgate’s squad ahead of next year’s European Championship.
Verdict- Winks, but Cook may yet make a run.
Jordan Henderson or James Ward-Prowse
Winks and Cook offer an option playing out of the back but England require more than one player who can keep the ball ticking over and Henderson looks a safe bet for the squad.
The Liverpool skipper had a solid World Cup and was sorely missed in the Nations League finals where he was reduced to a substitute’s role.
Henderson was only able to play seven of England’s twelve matches last season and Southgate needs a plan b, and that could lead to Ward-Prowse getting a recall.
The young midfielder has proved a revelation under Ralph Hasenhuttl and was a Southgate favourite with the Under 21s, however he remains on the fringes of the senior side.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Dele Alli
Alli has been a regular for Southgate and has played most of his England career in an advanced midfield role. However, he dropped into a deeper role alongside Henderson at the World Cup and with playmaking number ten’s now coming through, his England future could be again pushing forward from deep.
A similar option is the fit again Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the Liverpool midfielder has just been recalled nineteen months on from his last international.
Despite his lengthy lay off, ‘Ox’ remains upmost in Southgate’s plans and offers similar skills to Alli. Oxlade-Chamberlain also offers the option of playing in the front three, but his full potential with Liverpool remains difficult to project given his long injury absence.
Verdict- A close call but Alli
James Maddison, Mason Mount or Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Southgate has bemoaned England’s lack of a creative number ten who can unlock defences, and he’s currently auditioning two new candidates. Mount has followed up successful loan spells with Vitesse and Derby by breaking into Chelsea’s first team under Frank Lampard.
The 20-year old is only four games into his Premier League career but is already amongst the goals and is now set for his England debut.
Maddison largely slipped under England’s radar at youth level but has proved a hit since moving to Leicester with seven goals and seven assists last season. A natural playmaker with drive and shrewd passing, Maddison has more experience than Mount but struggled to find a role with the Under 21s.
Then there’s the enigmatic Loftus-Cheek. The Chelsea man is currently recovering from a torn achilles but has shown skill and a fine passing range for the Blues.
The problem remains however, that he offers little off the ball and still has relatively few senior games to his name, making it difficult to ascertain where he best fits.
Ross Barkley or Phil Foden
Southgate has fond memories of Paul Gascoigne’s mercurial genius from his England playing days, and while neither Barkley nor Foden have done enough to suggest they can match Gazza’s brilliance, they are both cut from the same cloth on the pitch (but mercifully not off it).
Barkley is another natural street footballer who can drop a shoulder and glide past defenders and can score spectacular goals. However, he can also frustrate with poor passing decisions and he has a habit of giving the ball away in dangerous positions.
Foden remains a great player still on the cusp of stardom. Inevitably, Foden is benefiting from playing for the world’s best manager, but struggling to get minutes with Manchester City. His moment of brilliance was the only bright spot of England’s dismal run at this summer’s Euro Under 21s but his lack of first team games mean he’s still learning and for now he remains with the Under 21s.
Verdict- Barkley for now, but come next spring…