England opened their account for 2021 with an expected-but-slightly-underwhelming 5-0 win over San Marino on Thursday. A one-sided result against the whipping boys of Group I won't count for much in terms of selection, but their remaining 2022 World Cup qualifiers this international break will play important parts in the audition process ahead of this year’s European Championship.
The Three Lions have four more games before the rescheduled Euro 2020 begins, including last-minute friendlies against Austria and Romania in early June. However, Gareth Southgate will prioritise performances in the World Cup qualifiers against Albania (March 28) and Poland (March 31) as proving grounds for who makes his final 23-man squad this summer.
The two Harrys—captain Kane and defensive totem Maguire—are about as certain as it gets as things stand, while Jordan Henderson and Jadon Sancho look like definites despite missing the latest squad due to injury. Others around the squad are approaching shoo-in status due to form and what they offer England, whereas some are more desperate to use these fixtures to underline their worth.
Must Make the Trip
On Board: Declan Rice
Evolved significantly from his origins being tagged as a defensive midfielder, Declan Rice now looks an invaluable resource among England’s substantial midfield assets.
The 22-year-old has made drastic improvements to his game in only a couple of seasons and taken well to a leadership role during West Ham United’s run into UEFA Champions League contention:
Rice has completed 87.5 percent of his dribbles in the Premier League this season—the highest ratio of any player in the division—and brings an athleticism few others in the dressing room can. Veteran Henderson’s place in the starting XI could even fall under risk depending on how Southgate envisions his midfield moving forward, with Rice looking like the ‘new and improved’ model.
In Departures: John Stones
Maguire deserves credit for overcoming a rough patch last year to reassert himself as England’s best central defender, but the role of ‘Comeback King’ goes to City counterpart John Stones.
Pep Guardiola has pulled off one of the less expected rejuvenation acts in promoting Stones back to starting status at the Etihad Stadium this term, especially as its come at the expense of Aymeric Laporte.
It was at the 2018 World Cup in Russia that the 26-year-old helped the Three Lions reach the semi-final. Stones told BBC Sport how helpless he felt watching England from afar when he fell out of Southgate’s plans, but that rejection served as motivation to get back in contention.
The impact of summer signing Ruben Dias has been key to City’s fortunes, but his go-to partner has also contributed well in forming arguably the best defense in Europe this season. Provided that rediscovered character can translate into form for his country, Stones—who looks closer to the player City signed from Everton in 2016—may have a major role at Euro 2020 despite not receiving an England call-up all of last year.
Bags Packed: Luke Shaw
Luke Shaw is a man on a mission to make up for lost time after missing out on the squads in each of England’s last two major tournaments, and it’s possible the starting left-back slot could be his to lose.
Ben Chilwell is no longer a guarantee in Chelsea’s defense since Thomas Tuchel took over, which has coincided with Shaw—still only 25—rediscovering his energetic, robust best in Manchester United’s back line.
Despite the arrival of Alex Telles from Porto, the former Southampton star has locked down the left-back role as his own at Old Trafford, contributing heftily in attack with six assists and a derby goal against Manchester City for good measure:
Having featured in the 2014 World Cup at 18, Shaw has gone from riches to rags and back again, most notably struggling at United while Jose Mourinho was in charge.
Now older and wiser, the defender told Sky Sports’ Adam Bate that incumbent boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has “pushed me (Shaw) to a new level,” and it’s showing.
At the Ticket Counter: Mason Mount
Any concerns that Frank Lampard held Mason Mount too high in his own regards have since abided since the former was replaced as Chelsea coach by Thomas Tuchel, who is also proving to be a big fan.
He’s clearly not the only one considering Southgate has started the Blues playmaker in each of England’s last five games, but yet the jury is still out for some on what Mount adds 13 caps into his international career.
At 22, the midfielder has led Chelsea’s creative corps with 73 key passes (passes that directly lead to a shot on goal) in the Premier League this term. Only Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes (81) and Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish (76) have made more.
It’s possible Grealish is considered some of his main competition for a place in the squad, but Mount’s greater versatility playing closer to central midfield may be of greater importance given the options England already have out wide:
First Time Flier: Bukayo Saka
A hamstring injury has put Bukayo Saka’s involvement in England’s World Cup qualifiers is in doubt, meaning it’s of even graver importance that Southgate heeds what he’s seen so far from the teenager.
The major value in selecting Saka lies in his comfort across numerous roles, and not just in any one area. Having started his senior Arsenal career as a left winger, the 19-year-old then impressed in midfield and at left-back, more recently roosting as an inverted winger on the right side of Mikel Arteta’s attack. We’ve even seen Saka look at ease in central midfield when asked to play there, though his smaller stature makes this unlikely in his England career anytime soon.
It’s that malleability that’s likely played a large role in Saka becoming the most valuable asset at the Emirates Stadium, according to a report from the CIES Football Observatory:
England are blessed to have a number of teenage talents breaching the senior ranks at present, and Southgate need not be afraid to embrace any. Saka stars as the most balanced of the bunch in transitioning with ease, a young and hungry utility offering too much to leave behind.
Playing for Places
Climbing at Speed: Jude Bellingham
Another among that new dynasty at the genesis of his international career, Jude Bellingham looks all but certain to acquire a lot of England caps, but whether he’ll accumulate at the Euros is another matter.
That’s because the 17-year-old is only two appearances deep in international waters having come off the bench against San Marino looking every bit the senior. But then that's San Marino, and a lot of youngsters might do the same when their team enjoys 84.6 percent of the ball (via WhoScored).
While the box-to-box prospect's potential is clear, he’s unfortunate to play in an extremely competitive part of the squad.
Bellingham is one of three players in the current England rotation based outside the Premier League, Borussia Dortmund team-mate Sancho and Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Tripper being the others. Barely six months on from his Birmingham City departure and the Stourbridge native is at home in the top flight, earning particularly high praise from Dortmund boss Edin Terzic of late:
"I have nothing but positive things to say about Jude Bellingham. We’re really satisfied with him. I personally have a very close relationship with him. What he's shown in the last few weeks has been outstanding, especially considering he's only 17 years of age.”
Bellingham is still finding that consistency in his decision-making, evidenced by the couple of rash chances he spurned in front of goal (including a audacious scissor kick around the penalty spot). But in sheer talent alone, there can be few doubts the 6’1” starlet is a talisman-in-the-making among England’s midfield and already one of their most well-rounded athletes.
Back of the Pack: Conor Coady
Wolverhampton Wanderers have fallen flat this season in attempting to match their hugely successful 2019-20 campaign, but Conor Coady is one who hasn’t allowed standards to slip by much.
It was a surprise to see Southgate name as many as six center-backs in his latest squad. We're counting Kyle Walker among that group considering Reece James and Trippier should fight for the slot out wide, with Trent Alexander-Arnold possibly coming back into the rotation in time for the summer.
Coady has an outside chance of being retained if the manager wants to persist with three central defenders moving forward, but preference for a four-man back line may well see the Wolves captain cast aside ahead of Euro 2020.
Three’s a Crowd: Ollie Watkins
The only uncapped outfielder named for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, Villa record signing Ollie Watkins is ready to reap the benefits of a blistering first six months in Birmingham.
Like Jamie Vardy before him, Watkins has taken the scenic route to soccer's peak, climbing from lower leagues to the top flight and now full international honors six months after his Premier League debut, capping his England bow with a well-taken goal:
As with certain fringe figures elsewhere, Watkins is attempting to crack a very competitive portion of the England squad. Kane has attained almost undroppable status despite Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s best efforts to offer some alternative, while Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are also of high importance in England’s attack.
In a world where one has to go (possibly so that a fit Danny Ings can come in), the numbers don't necessarily fare well for the Villa frontman. Calvert-Lewin—who bagged two against San Marino—has outscored Watkins 14 to 10 in the Premier League so far this term, and he’s managed to do so in three fewer appearances. Moreover, only three players have hit the target more times than Watkins (32) in England's top flight this term—Kane and Calvert-Lewin (34 apiece) are two of them.
The 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 variants that Southgate has tried in recent times each call for a single striker, which could spell bad news for Watkins unless an unlikely change to a two-man attack is in the works.
Set-Piece Saint: James Ward-Prowse
If squad selection came down to dead balls alone, James Ward-Prowse would be the first name on most team sheets. He has four direct free-kick goals to his record this season while no other player in the Premier League has more than one, making Ward-Prowse the incumbent king from the edge of the box:
There is more to the 26-year-old, however, who has completed the third-highest number of passes among Premier League midfielders this term. Only Manchester City’s Rodri (1,958) and former team-mate Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (1,824)—now at Tottenham—have surpassed his total of 1,654.
Southampton's captain ended a streak of seven straight goals from set-piece situations with his opener at the near post against San Marino. He also contributed a joint-England best of two tackles and completed 94 percent of his passes, level as the best in the game among non-defenders.
Ward-Prowse won’t bring the same physical presence as Rice, Henderson or Bellingham, and the argument for inclusion leans on his influence going forward. An assist tally of five in 29 league outings doesn’t scream “Pick me,” especially when Leicester City’s James Maddison (currently injured) has recorded as many despite playing 1,000 fewer top-flight minutes—and is a bigger goal threat.
Playing in a Saints side whose output has diminished as the season has progressed is a detrimental factor, but a lack of penetration into the opposition third is where other options may win out.
Wild Card: Jesse Lingard
Similar to Stones in regards to his revival for club and country, Jesse Lingard is living another life on loan at West Ham since leaving Old Trafford in January.
The 28-year-old has had seven direct goal involvements (five goals, two assists) in as many games for the Hammers since linking back up with David Moyes, who’s assured a Euro 2020 place is within Lingard’s reach:
As aforementioned, the San Marino result can only have so much bearing on selection, but Lingard did his chances little harm in an active 90-minute outing. His first England appearance since September 2019 ended with just the one assist, but Lingard was clearly motivated to impress, hitting the target with five of 10 attempts on goal, taking 106 touches in the process; only Chilwell (147) and Kalvin Phillips (136) had more.
The manager will surely have taken note of Lingard's impact in retaining possession, driving England into the opposition half and fashioning chances, but numerous missed opportunities could almost count against him. It’s one thing providing a spark at the London Stadium, but quite the other forcing one’s way back into England plans when surrounded by more prominent talent.
More research is required to see if the 28-year-old deserves another run with the Three Lions, but he may prove hard to ignore if a period on United’s sidelines has indeed upgraded Lingard to Version 2.0.