The road to this summer’s European Championship begins now – with three World Cup qualifiers.
It is uncommon to begin the qualification process for one tournament before the other is completed. Nevertheless, what these international side matches against San Marino, Albania and Poland does is give Gareth Southgate ample opportunity to rotate and experiment with his 26-man squad.
There are currently more questions than answers both at the back and further forward. With one eye on the euro, Sportsmail looks at 10 things Southgate should focus on for the next week.
England boss Gareth Southgate can use these matches to rotate his 26-man England squad
England will face San Marino, Albania and Poland in qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
WHO WILL STAND AS JORDAN PICKFORD’S CLOSEST CHALLENGE FOR NO. 1 JERSEY?
Jordan Pickford’s rib injury and his subsequent absence from the England squad are a huge opportunity, especially for Nick Pope and Dean Henderson.
Burnley goalkeeper Pope has been a fixture in the squad since 2018, but has only four caps to his name, with Everton goalkeeper Pickford preferred in all competitions.
As for Henderson, it looked like most of this season had been wasted, confined to the Manchester United bench behind David De Gea.
But De Gea’s unavailability over the past month has given Henderson his chance and so far has seized it with a series of solid performances.
West Brom’s Sam Johnstone has also been called up, but all eyes will be very much on Pope and Henderson for the next week as they make a claim for the No 1 jersey at this summer’s European Championship.
These three qualifiers present a huge opportunity for Nick Pope (R) and Dean Henderson (L)
AN OPPORTUNITY TO RETURN TO EXPERIMENTS IN THE CENTER …
Southgate named five center-backs in his roster for this international window, with Kyle Walker a right-sided option in a back-three.
Man United captain Harry Maguire is a Southgate favorite despite some patchy displays, including a first half red card against Denmark in October, so is expected to be the first choice.
But second spot in the center back pair – assuming a back four is Southgate’s flavor of the month – is up for grabs.
The leader is John Stones, who has been rejuvenated and has been exceptional for Manchester City this season. He also teamed up with Maguire leading up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-finals.
However, Conor Coady impressed his country during last year’s backend, as did Tyrone Mings at times. Eric Dier, who has definitely been pushed back to defense for club and country, is another proven option and the most experienced international option with 45 caps.
Harry Maguire and John Stones played together in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals
STRAIGHT PROJECTION LEFT BACK
Like Stones’ drastic improvement in the form of this campaign, Luke Shaw’s wave of consistent performance for Man United sees him return to the international squad for the first time since 2018.
Ben Chilwell has been England’s left back since the World Cup, but he’s been in and out of the starting XI at Chelsea since Thomas Tuchel took over.
As things stand, these two are the obvious choices for the euro this summer. They can immediately stamp their login details for a starting place.
Luke Shaw (left) and Ben Chilwell (right) are the obvious options for Southgate as a left back
PROOF YOU DESERVE YOUR SITE MORE THAN TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD
The biggest omission from Southgate’s roster was Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. No, he is not injured – the English boss confirmed that the 22-year-old was dropped.
Instead, Southgate chose to choose Chelsea’s Reece James, Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier and Man City’s Walker.
Over the course of three games, they are all expected to get a shot. Trippier is undoubtedly in favor of Southgate, despite his 10-week ban for violating FA betting rules.
But don’t rule out James, who impressed in October and November, or Walker, who also played in Russia three years ago.
If all three impress, Alexander-Arnold will have a hard time reclaiming his spot for this summer.
Reece James (L) and Kieran Trippier (R) were picked for Trent Alexander-Arnold
NO MORE DISEASE DISCIPLINE!
No, this is not a quick switch to problems with the England rugby team.
Last year, England had three red cards in five games.
Walker was fired in Iceland, Maguire went out early against Denmark and James got his second yellow card after showing dissent to the referee after a home defeat to the Danes.
In tournament football, lack of discipline and yellow cards, resulting in suspensions, can destroy a team’s momentum. In these qualifiers, which England are expected to win, they do well not to shoot themselves in the foot again.
Harry Maguire was sent off against Denmark in the first half in October’s defeat at Wembley
CAN DECLAN RICE IN THE MIDDLE FIELD BE AS VOCAL AS JORDAN HENDERSON?
Declan Rice’s ascent – while continuing to thrive in an overwhelming side of West Ham – shows no signs of slowing down.
He is now a virtually sure starter for England. Very good too, in a position on the field where Southgate lacks depth in other places.
But Rice will have to miss it without Jordan Henderson for this series of matches as the Liverpool skipper misses a groin injury, making him a touch-and-go for the summer as well.
Rice is likely to be playing with the less experienced Kalvin Phillips, Jude Bellingham or James Ward-Prowse and must prove that he can deliver the sound in the middle of the park. All the evidence so far suggests he certainly can.
Declan Rice should be the voice in the center of midfield in Jordan Henderson’s absence
IS THERE A SUMMER SPOT AVAILABLE FOR JUDE BELLINGHAM AT 17?
If Rice’s ascent was impressive, Jude Bellingham’s was meteoric.
While Curtis Jones was selected for the Under 21s this month, Southgate was clear he wanted 17-year-old Bellingham to play with the big boys.
Since Borussia Dortmund’s signing from Birmingham last summer, Bellingham has made a leap forward and is the German club’s youngest goalscorer in competitive football.
If he gets permission to travel to England for these qualifiers, Bellingham will certainly get a chance. And even if it’s San Marino, a virtuoso display would send the impulses racing over the next young star to break onto the international scene.
Jude Bellingham made his England debut at the age of 17 against Ireland in November
NAIL THE ATTACKING STARS THAT WILL SUPPORT HARRY KANE …
One area where Southgate certainly has options is the offensive positions.
Captain Harry Kane is the only guaranteed starter. In this squad, Mason Mount, Jesse Lingard, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford all compete for three, if not two, positions.
Not to mention the absence of Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and James Maddison due to an injury.
Again, these qualifiers provide Southgate with a perfect platform to test all of its abundance of quality in the final third.
Jesse Lingard, who played for England in the 2018 World Cup, received a well-deserved recall
OLLIE WATKINS OR DOMINIC CALVERT-LEWIN AS KANE’S MAIN BACKUP?
Ollie Watkins earned his first-ever international call-up, scoring 12 goals in all competitions for Aston Villa this season.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, meanwhile, has not yet reached the heights of the start of the 2021 season, although he has already scored two English goals in five games.
Especially the matches against San Marino and Albania offer these two the ideal opportunity to add to their goals – or to start, in the case of Watkins -.
Ollie Watkins (L) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin both fight to be Harry Kane’s main backup
EXPERIMENT FOR TWO GAMES … BEFORE TRICKY POLAND CLASH
Southgate knows this is his last chance to team up with his players before the end of the season and the euro.
Especially against inferior opposition, the English boss must therefore take the time to experiment, both with personnel and with formations.
However, he must not lose sight of the competitive nature of the games, notably a tough encounter with Wembley against Robert Lewandowski’s Poland next week.
The road to Qatar begins now – even though the euros are at the forefront.