Seven riddles facing Gareth Southgate before World Cup

Just 180 minutes of non-competitive football stand between Gareth Southgates youthful England squad and their departure for Russia and the World Cup.

The mood music from Southgate is that he knows his own mind and it therefore seems likely that he has chosen his starting XI for the opening match against Tunisia on 18 June.

From the outside at least, however, a handful of questions remain that could be answered in the remaining two warm-up matches, against Nigeria on Saturday and Costa Rica five days later.

Read more: How an Icelandic T-shirt row could affect the World Cup

The formation

How will Southgate set up against Tunisia? A back three and wing-backs seem a certainty, given that England have used that system for the last five games, but it remains unclear whether the default formation includes two combative midfielders, as seen successfully shutting out Germany and Brazil in November, or just the one, as used against Holland and Italy in March.

Nor can we be sure whether he will favour the two-man strikeforce seen in recent matches or, now that he is back from injury, Harry Kane leading the line alone.


Jordan Pickford is said to be Southgates first choice of an inexperienced trio of stoppers. The Everton man only made his debut in November and has two caps in total, so there is a strong argument for picking him in both warm-up games to maximise acclimatisation.

With major-tournament gaffes by Joe Hart and Rob Green still not-too-distant memories, England may be minded to do all they can to make a goalkeeper who has had a mixed club season feel at ease.

Pickford is expected to be England's No1 in Russia (Source: Getty)

On the other hand, back-ups Jack Butland and Nick Pope have seven and zero international appearances respectively, which may tempt Southgate to give them match practice before the World Cup.


Southgates selection of two specialist right wing-backs – Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold – would appear to indicate that Kyle Walker is earmarked for the centre-back berth that he fulfilled to some acclaim against Italy and Holland.

That leaves the wing-back role for Trippier, who has started four of the last five England matches and is a safer bet than Liverpool youngster Alexander-Arnold.

Like his Reds team-mates, the uncapped 19-year-old is not available for the Nigeria friendly due to Champions League final exertions, but Southgate may wish to blood him against Costa Rica.

On the other flank its a shootout between Danny Rose, who has started three of the last four internationals, and Ashley Young, who has broken into the team following a strong campaign with Manchester United.

The former looks the most likely option, but Southgate could use the remaining friendlies as auditions and field one in each.

Central defence

Gary Cahills England career looked over after he missed the last six internationals, so the Chelsea veterans inclusion was one of the surprises of the final 23-man party.

The suspicion remains that he is back-up, with Harry Maguire now fairly well established on the left of the back three – Cahills usual slot – alongside John Stones and probably Walker, although the next two games should offer a clearer indication.


Perhaps Southgates biggest headache has been the midfield, where Englands dearth of creative players has limited the managers options.

With mainstay Eric Dier set for his usual holding role and Jordan Henderson also likely to start in Russia, the question is how to balance the rest of the team without sacrificing attacking threat.

Loftus-Cheek is Southgate's one wild card selection (Source: Getty)

If the manager sticks to his recent 3-1-4-2 tactic then that may leave only one space for either Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard or his one wild card selection, Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Experimenting with a 3-4-3, however, potentially for the Nigeria match in which Henderson will be absent, could allow for a more positive set-up incorporating two of those three.

The Alli debate

Alli found himself on the bench for the last two matches after some lukewarm displays, with Southgate favourite Lingard excelling in his place, so his presence in the XI is far from assured.

His strong relationship with Spurs colleague Kane, however, must be a factor and his versatility could yet give him an edge over the United player; while Alli is best known for operating off the striker, he can play further back in a more traditional central midfield role.


For all of Englands defensive solidity, adoption of voguish tactics and the emergence of talented young players, Southgate has failed to translate that into a potent attacking threat.

The prolific Kanes absence has been a factor, but the teams meagre return of four goals from the last six games must be a cause for concern.

Kane is back in the England set-up and set to lead the line (Source: Getty)

Kane is most accustomed to operating on his own, yet Southgate seems to be leaning towards a two-man attack, with Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy, Alli and the recalled Danny Welbeck all potential partners.

Whatever he decides, he must address Englands chronic inability to score goals at the top level, with the team averaging a goal a game or worse at the last four major tournaments.

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