On Thursday, Gareth Southgate will announce his England squad for the upcoming Nations League games against Germany and Italy, which will offer a major insight into his plans for the World Cup in November.
It is a tricky position he finds himself in, with England in danger of being relegated from their Nations League group following a disastrous June which saw them fail to win a game in four attempts. However, while balancing attempted survival, he will also be choosing his last England squad before he has to announce which 23 players are jetting off to the Middle East for the World Cup.
And it is not a straightforward squad to name either, with form and injuries muddying previously clear waters. Here are the eight major headaches the England boss will have to sort before Thursday’s announcement.
1. What to do with the in-form Manchester United pair
“They’ve got a lot to do to get back in the squad,” Southgate claimed when asked in June about the omission of Manchester United pair Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford. The question is, have they done it?
Rashford in particular has thrived following the arrival of Erik ten Hag at Old Trafford, grabbing three goals and two assists so far this season and looking increasingly confident both running at players and in front of goal.
Meanwhile Sancho, out of the England squad since Euro 2020 ended, has also looked improved after a sub-par season last time out. Looking at those who have been preferred to the United pair in recent squad announcements, it is hard to argue that the likes of Jarrod Bowen or Emile Smith Rowe deserve a spot more than either Red Devil.
2. What about those on the Old Trafford bench?
If the first issue causes the England boss a minor headache, other goings on at Old Trafford will be handing him migraines. Two of England’s first-choice defenders are warming the bench in Manchester, with both Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw having been dropped from ten Hag’s first choice XI.
Maguire, who endured a torrid season last time out, was backed by Southgate repeatedly, and it seems unlikely that this will change between now and November, but there could be question marks over Shaw with Ben Chilwell’s strong return from injury. Manchester United’s fixture pile-up between now and the World Cup could inadvertently help the Red Devil pair and Southgate, who will not want two of his defenders entering a major tournament rusty and without sufficient minutes in their legs.
It is unlikely that either player is dropped for now, but should they continue to be restricted to cup competitions, Shaw may be sweating over his place in November’s squad.
3. The three-way battle to be England’s no.3
Injury to Jordan Pickford has handed Gareth Southgate an unexpected chance to audition players to be his third choice goalkeeper heading to Qatar, with all of Nick Pope, Sam Johnstone and Dean Henderson having previously been called up.
It is virtually guaranteed that the Everton man will be England’s no.1 in November, while Aaron Ramsdale is widely expected to be no.2 choice. But with Pickford set to be left out of the upcoming squad, two of Pope, Henderson and Johnstone will be given the chance to impress for the final spot on the plane. Henderson was third choice at Euro 2020 only to pull out with injury, and he has not been in a squad since.
Meanwhile, Nick Pope has impressed for Newcastle, and Sam Johnstone is also in the Premier League with Crystal Palace.
4. Will Kalvin Phillips be ready?
Phillips was virtually a guaranteed starter during his time at Leeds United, but his move to Manchester City may have jeopardised his place in Southgate’s starting XI, with the Englishman having not made a Premier League start for his new side to date, and left out of the last three matchday squads.
With the likes of Jude Bellingham and James Ward-Prowse playing far more often than the Yorkshireman, his place could be at risk, and if he continues to miss out on Manchester City sides, he could be well short of match fitness come November.
5. Toney or Tammy?
“I never pick on reputation - form has to come into it.” Those were the words uttered by Southgate in 2017 after taking the England job permanently.
If form is the true indicator, then Ivan Toney will be confident of a place in Thursday’s squad following his strong start to the season, with the Brentford striker having netted five goals and grabbed two assists in the opening six games of the season.
By contrast, Ollie Watkins, Patrick Bamford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin have struggled for form and fitness. Tammy Abraham, who was called up to the squad in June, has had a similarly slow start in Serie A, with just two goals and an assist to his name in six outings for Roma.
But, will Southgate risk calling up an uncapped Toney with just two games before the tournament begins, or will he stick with those who have served him before?
6. A return for Eric Dier?
Should Maguire remain out of form and favour at Old Trafford, Tottenham’s Eric Dier could well be the man to step into the breach. Playing week in, week out in the heart of a back three for Antonio Conte’s side, the 28-year-old has been out of the Three Lions squad since 2021, but was a part of the World Cup semi-final side in 2018, and has plenty of experience at the top level.
Bizarrely left out of the England squad in June, he would be a low risk replacement or alternative to Maguire, and his versatility could come in handy in a long tournament.
7. What to do with Trent Alexander-Arnold
The conundrum of Trent Alexander-Arnold was one which Southgate wrestled with even with the Liverpool man in top form, eventually conceding and finding space for him in the Three Lions squad.
But it has never been a happy marriage for one reason or another, and Alexander-Arnold’s poor start to the season will not have helped cement his place in the 23 man squad. While it feels criminal to leave a player out with his obvious attacking talents, his consistent defensive lapses mean that this is looking increasingly likely.
8. Too late for those on the fringes?
Barring a dramatic change of circumstances, it seems as though those axed from squads last year (with the exception of the Manchester United pair) are unlikely to find themselves back in come this Thursday.
Emile Smith Rowe, Patrick Bamford, Dominic Calvert-Lewin have all spent a long time out with injury, while the likes of James Justin, Jesse Lingard and Ollie Watkins have all struggled for form at the beginning of the campaign.
Ben White has been operated as a right-back in a back four, a position that England do not use, while Conor Coady and Conor Gallagher have yet to hit their best form after changing clubs over the summer.