Exactly what headaches is Gareth Southgate facing nine weeks out from Qatar?
Nine weeks out of the World Cup and the problems are mounting for England manager Gareth Southgate.
Injuries, a lack of playing time at club level for key players and no recognized understudy for Harry Kane are problems that threaten to derail England’s preparations.
Ahead of the double header against Italy and Germany, Sportsmail examines the headaches facing Southgate.
The England boss faces a number of headaches just weeks after the start of Qatar 2022
What if Pickford is still injured?
In terms of knowing his first choice, goalkeeper is not an area of great concern to Southgate. Jordan Pickford is his undisputed No.1.
However, the Everton man’s unavailability due to a thigh injury for the final two games before the tournament highlights a gnawing problem. What if Pickford is out? There is no obvious candidate to replace him.
Nick Pope, Aaron Ramsdale and Dean Henderson, who are the three in the squad this week, have a total of 12 caps between them compared to Pickford’s 45.
Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has proved doubters wrong to establish himself as the clear first choice – but his fitness is a concern
Aaron Ramsdale could claim the England No.1 shirt if Pickford is injured
Elsewhere, Brazil No.2 Ederson has 18 caps, while first-choice Alisson has 55. Germany’s recognized No.1 keeper Manuel Neuer has 116 caps, compared to Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s 28.
The Nations League games will give Pope and Ramsdale an opportunity to stake their claim as Pickford’s understudy.
Don’t be surprised to see both get an opportunity over the next week. Henderson, the recipient of Pickford’s omission, likely needs an injury if he is to have any chance of making the plane.
How can Maguire be in the starting XI?
There is no ambiguity about who Southgate regards as his two strongest centre-backs: Harry Maguire and John Stones. Stones plays regularly at Manchester City and that will come as a huge relief to the English coach.
However, Maguire finds life increasingly difficult under new Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag.
Since being dropped for the game against Liverpool four weeks ago, Maguire has played just 10 minutes in the Premier League.
He got a start in the Europa League against Real Sociedad – a game United lost – but was left on the bench until the last minute against Moldovan side FC Sheriff last week.
Maguire’s prospects of returning to the United team seem remote. The 29-year-old was name-checked by Southgate last week when he revealed his fears for England’s chances in Qatar due to a lack of first-team action for some of his stars.
Harry Maguire’s lack of action for Manchester United gives Southgate another headache
The only way Maguire’s situation is likely to change is through injuries to other United players.
That leaves Southgate in a tight position. The England manager has stressed on numerous occasions that his players should be involved regularly at club level if they are to feature in his squad.
There are exceptions for certain members, and Maguire falls into that category. Will he make the WC squad if his peripheral club role continues? Probably yes. Starting him is harder to justify though.
Eric Dier’s revival should ease Southgate’s worries. The Tottenham defender is in the form of his career at centre-half and that, along with his big tournament experience, should be a factor.
Southgate is known to be a big fan of Marc Guehi, but the Crystal Palace defender, Fikayo Tomori and Conor Coady have no experience of playing at a major senior international tournament.
Coady was selected for the Euro 2020 squad but did not play a single minute.
Eric Dier’s revival could ease some of the questions Southgate faces ahead of the tournament
Should he leave Alexander-Arnold at home?
We’ve had all the jokes about Southgate picking a squad full of right-backs – but at this point it’s no longer funny. Kyle Walker is a safety and if England play with a four-man defence, the Manchester City man will start at right back.
If Southgate switches to a back three, then Walker will play alongside Stones and another in the heart of defence, with Reece James likely to play at right wing-back.
The Chelsea man’s versatility is a big bonus for Southgate, James can also play at right-back and centre-back. Walker and James as right-sided defensive options would normally suffice. But that would mean leaving Trent Alexander-Arnold behind.
Can Southgate trust Trent Alexander-Arnold defensively against top opposition?
England being able to pick 26 instead of the usual 23 players means Southgate can accommodate three right-backs – but is that a waste of a slot, especially when Kieran Trippier can play on either flank?
Southgate seems to need convincing about Alexander-Arnold. There’s no doubting his ability going forward, but Southgate seems unsure of the Liverpool star’s defensive abilities. That leaves Alexander-Arnold vulnerable.
It is not clearer at left back either. Under normal circumstances, Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell would be selected. Neither plays regularly at club level, but unlike right-back, there aren’t many other options.
The fact that no alternative was selected in this squad suggests that no one is in the running for a late World Cup bid, although Brentford’s Rico Henry is believed to have impressed the England staff, while Tyrick Mitchell, who was called up in last season, remains on the radar.
Will he finally let Jude Bellingham loose?
Whether Southgate deploys a three-man or two-man midfield, Declan Rice is the only certainty to be selected. Southgate places huge value on the West Ham star, but who plays alongside him is up for debate.
Under normal circumstances, Kalvin Phillips would be expected to feature, but he will withdraw from the squad today and will undergo surgery to treat a shoulder complaint that has dogged the midfielder for more than 12 months.
England are confident Phillips will recover in time, but he may not be a guaranteed starter in Qatar.
Perhaps the biggest dilemma for Southgate is whether to finally let Jude Bellingham off the hook. For many, the Borussia Dortmund teenager should be one of the first names on the team list. It is hard to disagree as he is a phenomenal footballer.
Jude Bellingham has been an ever-present for Borussia Dortmund and could finally be unleashed
Southgate is much more cautious. He has been criticized for it – which is rubbish given England finished fourth at the 2018 World Cup and second at Euro 2020 – but it is certainly time to push Bellingham into his starting XI.
The decision may be made easier if Phillips is not fit. It will be interesting to see if Southgate feels the same or if he returns to Jordan Henderson’s experience.
If Southgate uses a three-man midfield, Mason Mount has a good chance to play. Southgate loves the Chelsea star’s defensive discipline. Mount receives his fair share of criticism but the 23-year-old carries out Southgate’s instructions to a tee – a manager’s dream.
Where’s the back up for Kane?
All being well, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden will lead England’s attack. In wide attacking areas, England are blessed: Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka all have genuine cases to start England’s opener against Iran on November 21.
If Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho continue their promising start to the season, they could also come into the equation.
But England’s centre-forward options behind Kane remain a major problem. Ivan Toney, who earned his first international call-up last week, has the opportunity to force his way into Southgate’s World Cup party.
He will almost certainly make his debut in the coming games and an impressive display could see the Brentford striker move into a position where he is considered Kane’s No.2.
England have plenty of forward options, but no obvious back up to first choice Harry Kane
Ivan Toney became the first Brentford player since 1939 to be selected for an England squad
Tammy Abraham’s impressive spell in Italy playing for Roma has seen him recalled in recent months, but the fact he played just 65 minutes in England’s four summer internationals suggests Southgate still needs to be convinced that he is an alternative to Kane.
With that in mind, Rashford’s ability to offer something different playing through the middle while also being able to play out wide is likely to be considered when Southgate makes the final decisions on his World Cup squad.
The Manchester United star was close to being recalled for the next two games, but a muscle injury prevented his inclusion.
Marcus Rashford was close to returning to the England team, but a muscle injury prevented that