Gareth Southgate is ready to hand Marcus Rashford an England recall and is poised to replace the injured Reece James with the Arsenal defender Ben White when he names his 26-man squad for the World Cup on Thursday.
Southgate has been finalising his plans for Qatar and, along with taking gambles on the fitness of Manchester City’s Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips, is expected to bring Rashford out of the international wilderness.
The Manchester United forward has not played for England since the Euro 2020 final defeat by Italy, when he missed a penalty during the shootout, but he has shaken off his injury problems and has been in encouraging form this season. The 25-year-old’s goalscoring threat is an obvious part of his appeal to Southgate, who has bemoaned the lack of reliable finishers in his squad, and he is on the verge of being welcomed back into the fold.
Southgate has never closed the door on Rashford, who boasts plenty of tournament experience, but he is set to deliver disappointing news to other England hopefuls. The manager has left James devastated after deciding that he could not risk taking the Chelsea right-back, who has been out since last month with damaged knee ligaments, and he is giving serious consideration to picking the Newcastle striker Callum Wilson as Harry Kane’s deputy. Roma’s Tammy Abraham and Brentford’s Ivan Toney are in danger of missing out to Wilson, whose excellent form has brought him six goals this season.
There is a sense that Southgate, who could have Luke Shaw as the only recognised left-back in his squad, is prepared to go with Kane, Wilson and Rashford as his central strikers. Rashford can also play off the left, meaning that there could be no room for the West Ham winger Jarrod Bowen, who has been involved in England’s past two squads. The United winger Jadon Sancho, who went to the Euros, and the Leicester playmaker James Maddison are also unlikely to make the cut. Maddison has six goals this season.
Despite the possible inclusion of Wilson, whose history of fitness problems means that the last of his four caps came in October 2019, Southgate tends to favour continuity. However his defensive options have been complicated by injury concerns.
The biggest blow is the absence of James, who has not played since limping off during Chelsea’s victory over Milan last month. England’s opening game is against Iran on 21 November and although the 22-year-old was confident of being fit for the knockout stages Southgate has decided that he cannot afford to risk him.
England will have to adjust without James, who was expected to start at right wing-back. His place is likely to be taken by Newcastle’s Kieran Trippier and there is expected to be good news for White. The Arsenal centre-back has excelled as a converted right-back this season. The Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold is also expected to be involved.
Southgate is expected to pick Walker. The City right-back has not played since undergoing groin surgery last month, but England depend on him for his speed and experience.
The unknown is whether Walker, who usually starts at right centre-back in England’s back three, will stand up to the physicality of a major tournament. Central defence is a worry, not least because Harry Maguire has started one league game for United since August. That could compel Southgate to be more conservative and pick extra cover at centre-back. Milan’s Fikayo Tomori is thought to have the edge over Crystal Palace’s Marc Guéhi and Liverpool’s Joe Gomez. John Stones, Eric Dier and Conor Coady are expected to be selected.
Another complication is the situation on the left. England have lost Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell to a torn hamstring, leaving them short of competition for Shaw, but Southgate could decide to overlook options such as Palace’s Tyrick Mitchell and Tottenham’s Ryan Sessegnon. With Leicester’s James Justin and Southampton’s Kyle Walker-Peters injured, the solution to Chilwell’s absence could simply be to use the versatile Trippier on the left. Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka has played at left wing-back for England.
Further forward, there are signs that Southgate is convinced that Phillips is fit. The City midfielder underwent shoulder surgery in September and is short of match sharpness but has been a key player for England.
Nonetheless Southgate will need to plan for the possibility of Phillips suffering a setback. He cannot simply rely on Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson as his other options in central midfield. Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse is believed to have the edge over the Chelsea duo of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Conor Gallagher.