We break down the talking points and selection dilemmas for Gareth Southgate as he prepares to name his England squad on Thursday; the Three Lions kick off their World Cup qualifying campaign against San Marino, Albania and Poland
Thursday 18 March 2021 14:02, UK
In defence, the biggest talking point is Luke Shaw's likely return to the squad. The 25-year-old has only made two England appearances during Southgate's tenure and has not featured since their 2-1 loss to Spain in the Nations League in September 2018.
He has been outstanding for Manchester United this season, however, providing considerable attacking threat from left-back and impressing defensively too.
With Ben Chilwell struggling for playing time at Chelsea, there could be an opening for Shaw not just in Southgate's squad but in his starting line-up.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville feels he is England's best left-back and expects Southgate to reward his fine form this season.
"He's been outstanding this season for United," he said on The Gary Neville Podcast. "A Luke Shaw who is fit, physically good and confident is the best left-back in the country, in my opinion.
"Gareth Southgate will be watching him intently, thinking, 'I know Luke Shaw, I've seen him before'.
"He had almost given up on him, but you can't give up on him now. Southgate is staring right at him and thinking, 'that is the best performing English left-back in the country at the moment'.
"Everything is right for Luke Shaw because he is an amazing talent. Physically he's good, he's got a good height about him, and maybe it's deceiving people at home that he's actually very good in the air, and he can play at left-side centre-back."
Neville likened Shaw's return to form to that of Manchester City's John Stones, another player likely to return to the England fold for the upcoming fixtures, but insists the next challenge for both of them is to produce consistency on a long-term basis.
"Both are having the best periods of their careers, but they've got to do it year in, year out for us to start to trust that this is really the breakthrough and the moment when they go from potential, to letting you down a little bit, to realising that potential and being brilliant players over two or three seasons."
Jude Bellingham became England's third-youngest senior player behind only Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott when he came off the bench during November's 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland.
The teenager, 17 years and 137 days old at the time, is now in line for another call-up, having been omitted from the latest U21 squad, but Covid-19 rules in Germany could starve him of his chance to join the senior team.
His move from Birmingham City to Borussia Dortmund last summer has worked out well, with the German side happy to give him plenty of playing time in central midfield and the youngster producing eye-catching performances in return. So far, he has made 21 Bundesliga appearances and provided three assists.
There is plenty of competition in England's midfield, of course, but with Jordan Henderson injured and Harry Winks having fallen out of favour at Tottenham, Bellingham would have found his route into the team a little clearer for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Jesse Lingard is another player pushing to be involved in midfield - albeit in a more advanced role than Bellingham.
The 28-year-old was previously a Southgate favourite and impressed during England's run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals. He lost his place in the squad when he fell out of favour at Manchester United but his outstanding form on loan at West Ham is sure to have put him back in Southgate's thoughts.
Lingard's West Ham team-mate Declan Rice, meanwhile, will hope to boost his starting credentials at the base of the midfield in Henderson's absence. Like Lingard, the 22-year-old has shone for the high-flying Hammers lately.
England's No 1 shirt is Jordan Pickford's to lose - but now ruled out of this round of internationals and with Nick Pope and Dean Henderson providing stiff competition, the Everton goalkeeper's injury may open the door to them.
Pickford has been a key figure under Southgate, his composure and passing range vital to the manager's preference for playing out from the back. But his performances have come under scrutiny this season and he was forced out of Everton's 2-1 loss to Burnley on Saturday after landing awkwardly on his right side.
Pope has enjoyed another strong campaign with Burnley, keeping nine clean sheets, while Henderson has impressed since coming into the Manchester United team in place of David de Gea, conceding only once in his last seven appearances. West Brom's Sam Johnstone, meanwhile, is on standby if Pickford is unavailable.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher expects Southgate to persist with Pickford at this summer's European Championship, but he feels it's Henderson, rather than Pope, who is most likely to take his place in the long-term.
"I think Nick Pope would find it very difficult to ever become a regular for England because he plays for Burnley", said Carragher on Monday Night Football last week.
"I don't mean any disrespect to Sean Dyche or the club, but certainly the way they play and the way Gareth Southgate wants to play are completely different.
"If Henderson is playing for Manchester United week-in, week-out, playing Champions League football at the top level where the pressure is as high as possible, I think it gives him a great opportunity - maybe after this tournament, because I think Pickford will keep his place for that.
"Going forward into next season, if Henderson is the Manchester United goalkeeper, I think it's very difficult not to pick him for England."
A look at this season's Premier League scoring charts highlights the attacking depth available to Southgate. There are six English players among the top 10 highest scorers in the division and a total of nine who have netted nine or more goals.
Two of them are unavailable in Jamie Vardy, who has retired from international duty, and Callum Wilson, who has been sidelined by a knee injury, but - in order of Premier League goals scored this season - Southgate can still call on Harry Kane, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Patrick Bamford, Ollie Watkins, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Harvey Barnes.
Bamford's return to fitness means he is in Southgate's thinking for a first England call-up, Sky Sports News has learned.
Marcelo Bielsa has said on Wednesday afternoon the striker still has a sore hip, but he is nevertheless available for selection against Fulham in the Premier League on Friday Night. That news has alerted Southgate, who was in the stands at Elland Road on Saturday when he saw Bamford forced off after 35 minutes against Chelsea.
Jadon Sancho, who has hit 12 goals for Dortmund this season, is injured, as are Danny Ings and Tammy Abraham, who will also hope to be in the manager's thinking for the summer.
Southgate cannot pick them all in the summer, of course - and with attacking midfielders Jack Grealish and James Maddison also expected to be unavailable for the upcoming internationals - he will make his choices knowing there is plenty of talent in reserve.
As Southgate prepares to name his squad, we have compiled an England XI from the stats-based Sky Sports Power Rankings this season - and there are some surprise selections.
In goal, Burnley stopper Pope earns a starting berth between the sticks ahead of current England No 1 Pickford, according to the stats.
Five defenders from the Manchester clubs rank among the top seven in the Power Rankings - but Everton's Michael Keane and West Ham's Aaron Cresswell force their way into the XI.
Keane narrowly edges Stones, who pays the price for playing fewer minutes than the Everton centre-back, but Cresswell secures his place at left-back ahead of Shaw - boosted by his seven league assists.
The stats present a new-look midfield, with Southampton workhorse James Ward-Prowse claiming a starting berth in the middle, either side of Mount and Leicester playmaker Maddison.
There is growing fluidity in wide midfield and forward roles and Foxes starlet Barnes is on the periphery of selection in both areas, while Rice narrowly trails Ward-Prowse for the holding role.
Up front, Kane and Grealish rank as England's top-performers this season, guaranteeing themselves places in our XI, with Rashford claiming the final slot down the right flank - ahead of Sterling.
Our stats-based XI is limited to Premier League players but if we took into account other leagues, Rangers trio James Tavernier, Connor Goldson and Ryan Kent would all make the side based on their performances in the Scottish Premiership this season.
Elsewhere, Brentford striker Ivan Toney would earn a seat on the England bench as understudy for Kane thanks to his eye-catching performances in the Championship, while Jadon Sancho would join him among the substitutes, his dip in form at Borussia Dortmund this season costing him a place in the starting line-up.
Gerard Brand on the Pitch to Post Review show:
"If you look at those players who are now in contention for the Euros squad, the shift since the last set of internationals in November is quite amazing.
"You're now looking at Luke Shaw battling with Chilwell for the left-back spot, or potentially Saka being used in a five-man defence, Ezri Konsa may even battle with his own Villa team-mate Tyrone Mings at centre-back. Does Tammy Abraham get in the team? Who is the goalkeeper? How on earth do you incorporate Sterling, Sancho, Rashford, Kane, Grealish, Foden, Mount, Maddison, Saka into the side?
"Quite a lot has changed since November. We talk about 'welcome headaches' a lot in football, but Gareth Southgate strikes me as somebody who likes continuity in his selections. He puts a lot of faith in players who have played well for him but maybe aren't on form or getting minutes for their club.
"There is always a collective criticism to every England team selection, as if the 23 or subsequent XI pick themselves. It's actually an impossible job for Southgate.
"The England camp is an environment where you meet for no more than a week at a time, and in this case there's been a four-and-a-half month gap between meetings, so you have to have continuity in there in faces, personnel, and playing style. You can't just pick the most in form players in 2021.
"So there will be the inevitable 'Why hasn't he picked x and y?' questions, but Southgate is somebody who has his own vision for England."