Can Southgate risk players short on fitness or injured?
Gareth Southgate is not a fan of the 26-man tournament squad, believing it is more difficult to manage. And yet there is an upside. It allows him to include one or two players who have been out with injury and may not be ready to feature in the early ties. Before the European Championship in the summer of last year, which England kicked off on 13 June, Harry Maguire had been out with ankle ligament damage since 9 May and Jordan Henderson was only just coming back from the groin operation he underwent in late February. Southgate selected them both and it paid off handsomely in the case of Maguire, who missed the opening two group games but ended up in the team of the tournament. This time, Southgate has decisions to make over Kalvin Phillips and Kyle Walker – likely starters under normal circumstances. Phillips is set to be in the Manchester City squad against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night, his first involvement since shoulder surgery towards the end of September. He has managed only 14 minutes of action all season. Walker is behind him in terms of a comeback date after groin surgery on 4 October, although Pep Guardiola says Walker “feels really good”. There is no decision to make on Reece James, another key player, who has not played since injuring a knee on 11 October. He is simply too far away from fitness.
Does Chilwell’s absence open door to another defender?
Poor Ben Chilwell. The Euros were disaster for him on a personal level as he failed to appear and now he is out of the World Cup, having injured a hamstring for Chelsea last Wednesday. The good news for Southgate is that Luke Shaw, his first-choice left-back or left wing-back, has rediscovered his form after a poor start to the season but where is the cover for him with Chilwell out? Most likely from Kieran Trippier, although with James out and the uncertainty over Walker, the Newcastle player is in line to start on the right. Southgate considers Trippier to be ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Could the manager call up a back-up left-back; say, Tyrick Mitchell or even the uncapped Ryan Sessegnon? Kyle Walker-Peters and James Justin, who can both play on the left, are injured. Another idea would be to further bolster the right side to free up Trippier to switch, which could bring Ben White into the equation. Or Joe Gomez. Both would also offer an option at centre-half, where Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guéhi are sweating over their inclusion.
Is it time for Rashford?
It was easy to worry that Marcus Rashford was finished last season. The Manchester United forward felt his confidence crash and it was pretty painful to watch him at times. Southgate dropped him for the friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast in March and he noted a little pointedly that Rashford had pulled out of six of the previous eight squads. Rashford’s last England appearance came in the defeat by Italy at the Euro final when he missed his penalty shootout kick. But he has been much better for United this season, playing with the pace and intent of old and scoring seven goals – even if his finishing has not always been lethal. Southgate selected Rashford for the 2018 World Cup. The player’s pedigree, which takes in 12 England goals, is a part of his appeal.
The battle to understudy Kane
Rashford is a part of this and so are Tammy Abraham, Ivan Toney and Callum Wilson. Southgate talks of having a batting order in each position, the sense being that if somebody is unavailable or drops off, he automatically moves to the next man down and it really takes something to disrupt a carefully calculated hierarchy. All of which is to say that Abraham appears to be in possession of a squad place up front, having been consistently called up since October of last year. That said, he did not take his chance when he started the Nations League tie against Italy in June (did anybody?) and he has scored only three goals for Roma this season. Toney won a first call-up for the internationals in September, although he did not make his debut, on the back of fine numbers at Brentford, and Wilson has been eye-catching for Newcastle. Wilson won the last of his four caps in October 2019.
Is there room for a wildcard?
Such as James Maddison, who has showed his class for Leicester this season and delivered the goods (six goals, four assists in 12 Premier League games). The creative midfielder has emerged as a cause célèbre but Southgate has overlooked him since giving him his only cap in November 2019. Maybe it could be Ruben Loftus-Cheek, in assured touch for Chelsea and a veteran of the squad from the last World Cup. Or perhaps Southgate will go for the extra left-back or a bonus striker. On the other hand, it could be that the West Ham winger Jarrod Bowen has done enough to stay in.