6 urgent things Gareth Southgate needs to see before the end of the season
Rarely has an England manager approached a major tournament with the uncertainty that Gareth Southgate is confronted with. Before Euro 2012, Roy Hodgson succeeded Fabio Capello with so little notice that he had only two friendly fixtures to prepare. However, he was at least working with established and experienced international players whose selection was near-certain.
Two years earlier, Capello's lack of faith in his limited options contributed to Jamie Carragher ending his international retirement, while the Italian attempted to persuade Paul Scholes to do the same. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Capello's team struggled amid that relative chaos.
England, perhaps justifying perceptions of mental fragility, have long been at their most confident when much of their starting XI have been predictable. Nearing Russia 2018, Southgate doesn't even have a settled goalkeeper to call upon, and the reality is that's only where his problems begin...
1. A keeper to make his mark
At both the 2014 World Cup and heading into Euro 2016, England had uncharacteristic strength in depth at a time when there was little question over Joe Hart's first-choice status. Fraser Forster and Ben Foster, then Jack Butland and Tom Heaton, provided further options.
Not now. The consequence of Hart's inability to recover from the mistakes he made two summers ago, Forster being dropped by Southampton, Heaton suffering injury, plus Foster, Butland and Jordan Pickford struggling to consistently convince has scuppered that. Nick Pope, a second-choice goalkeeper for Burnley at the start of this season, has now come into contention.
What was once a strength in depth has become, simply, numerous uninspiring – or perhaps more fairly, inexperienced – options. It matters little whether Hart can somehow re-establish himself before the season's end or if Butland or Pickford prove themselves his long-term successor. One of them needs to discover the authority and conviction that will make him a strength behind an uncertain defence.
2. Harry Kane to regain his fitness
Hodgson was once blessed with options in the final third, particularly when Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck vied for selection, while Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford emerged as further contenders.
Kane has since become, without question, England's most proven, convincing and consistent goalscorer. Of the rest, only Vardy and Rashford have not since significantly declined.
The Tottenham striker struggled at Euro 2016 when he was exhausted after two years without a break, so his injured ankle ligaments could yet prove a blessing in disguise if he returns to score before the season's end and without any disruption to his tournament preparations. In his potential absence, Vardy and Rashford – the latter so far at least – represent considerably less rounded options.
3. Jack Wilshere to stay fit and in form
If Arsenal’s season doesn't end with victory in the Europa League, Wilshere's re-emergence will be the success story of his club’s season. He's played his finest football since first establishing himself as a hugely exciting English prospect when becoming a regular in 2010. For all the promise of Lewis Cook, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Harry Winks, Wilshere is – while fit – the footballer most suited to setting England's tempo as Southgate's playmaker from midfield.
That he was also given a greater appreciation of a midfielder's defensive responsibilities while on loan at Bournemouth (and while England experimented with him at the base of a midfield three) could also prove crucial. Jordan Henderson is similarly not a natural holding midfielder, but a Henderson-Wilshere partnership in front of Eric Dier could provide balance, energy and discipline.