When it comes to appraising the challenges that England face in this summers’ World Cup, there are a number of things for Gareth Southgate’s side to contend with.
One is the distance that the Three Lions have to travel between their training camp in Saint Petersburg and three group game locations, with this study showing that they’ll cover 4,968 miles in a very short period of time.
Then there’s the youthful nature of Southgate’s squad, which is the third youngest group of England players ever selected for a major tournament.
However, perhaps a more significant concern is the unbalanced nature of Southgate’s squad, with a paucity of options and creativity in midfield and an excess of defensive minded players.
In this post, we’ll explore this in further detail and ask whether it will undermine chances of success.
The Case for the Defence – Does Southgate have an Excess of Defenders?
Prior to the squad being announced, most pundits expected Southgate to deploy a 3-4-3 formation during the World Cup, and the final selection seems to reaffirm this.
To this end, there are a total of four centre-backs and six wing-backs included, including Spurs’ Danny Rose and Manchester City’s auxiliary defender Fabian Delph.
While this may seem reasonable in some respects, further inspection of the squad highlights some considerable issues. Firstly, the selection of three right-sided and three left-sided wing-backs seems slightly excessive, particularly given the ability of Delph and Ashley Young to play on both flanks.
Interestingly, the failure to recognise the versatility of certain players is a key characteristic of Southgate’s squad, and one that could well be to its detriment.
Manchester City defender Kyle Walker has performed with distinction as both a right-sided centre-back and a full-back under the stewardship of Southgate, for example, while midfielder Eric Dier is also comfortable when playing in the heart of the defence.
Why the Absence of Shelvey May Prove Crucial
When you consider the versatility of these players and the flexibility within the squad, the selection of 10 specialist defenders and Eric Dier seems a little disproportionate.
This imbalance is borne out by the selection of just five midfielders, with Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek joining Dier in the final squad. Even assuming that England are likely to start with just two central midfielders, the squad is extremely light on options and bereft of viable cover should Dier or Henderson suffer an injury.
After all, neither Lingard or Alli are suited to a deeper midfield role, with their strengths lying in forward movement and an exceptional goal threat. While the talented Loftus-Cheek certainly adds a unique and exciting dimension to the squad, he arguably lacks the discipline or the experience to perform a holding role in a typical 3-4-3 formation.
Not only does this make it exceptionally difficult for England to change their shape during the tournament, but it may also compromise their ability to dominate games against less technically-gifted sides. Remember, England take on Tunisia and Panama in their opening two group games in Russia, and would be expected to control these games and retain the majority of possession in the process.
With this in mind, the inclusion of a player like Jonjo Shelvey at the expense of Delph or Kieran Trippier would have provided a potentially decisive option in Russia. The Newcastle man has enjoyed an extremely consistent season back in the top-flight, having made 32 appearances in all competitions whole scoring two goals and provided three assists.
He also created 32 chances with a pass completion rate in excess of 73%, which is reasonable for a player who is constantly looking forward.
Most importantly, his ability to command the ball and dictate games may well have served England well in the group stage, while it would certainly have contributed to a more balanced playing squad.
The Last Word – Could Adam Lallana hold the Key?
By leaving out Shelvey and the polarising (but undoubtedly gifted) figure of Jack Wilshere, Southgate has created an energetic but largely one-dimensional squad that lacks genuine quality in the middle of the park.
Make no mistake; this is where games are won at lost at international level, particularly when you start competing with better and well-resourced sides.
One ray of hope may exist in the form of Liverpool’s Adam Lallana, however, who has been named as one of five standby players despite missing much of the season through injury. He still has a chance to make a late claim for inclusion, however, although he would probably need one of his Three Lions’ teammates to suffer an injury in the build-up to the World Cup.
Lallana’s inclusion would definitely introduce some craft and guile into England’s midfield, while his combination of flair and hard work means that he can play comfortably in the middle of the park.
Written by Lewis Humphries
Follow Lewis on Twitter @LewisRHumphries
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