As Gareth Southgate picks his final pre-World Cup squad, it’s a pivotal moment for some in the race to make the England squad for Qatar.
At the start of the week, one key decision for the England manager was whether to recall Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.
One of those calls may have been made for him, with Rashford set to miss out with a muscle injury, which may allow room for Sancho to be included against Italy and Germany in the Nations League later this month.
It looks increasingly likely that Tottenham’s Eric Dier will be re-introduced for this squad, despite his England exile now extending to almost two years.
Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott and Brentford’s Ivan Toney are both very much in the thoughts of the England manager, though it’s touch and go whether either will be included at this stage.
The choices that the England manager makes now will give strong clues about his plans for Qatar, with only four full international training sessions before he picks the 26 players to represent their country at the first winter World Cup.
So – while Southgate might name a bigger squad than usual, so that he can make final assessments on one or two fringe players – don’t expect a raft of experimental new faces to be called up.
Is there space for Rashford and Sancho?
Sancho was a regular England incumbent until the Euros final 14 months ago when both he and Rashford missed penalties in the decisive shoot out against Italy.
Sancho’s form fell away the following season at Old Trafford, as did his England prospects.
But the 22-year-old former Borussia Dortmund winger has bounced back from his extended spell in the doldrums, and his all-round play has been better even than his stats suggest – he’s registered two goals in six Premier League games so far this season.
His United team-mate Rashford boasts an even more impressive recent record. Under new United manager Erik ten Hag, Rashford has registered five goal involvements in six Premier League games (three goals and two assists). Though the true extent is unknown, this muscle injury has come at the wrong time.
Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount – all remain some distance ahead of Rashford and Sancho in the England pecking order right now.
Though Jarrod Bowen’s difficult start to the season with West Ham may well cost him his England place this time, meaning he’s a long shot for a place on the plane to Qatar.
Southgate impressed by Toney form
Rashford has been used as a lone striker by Ten Hag, so if he is called up by England, might another striker miss out?
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Patrick Bamford and Callum Wilson are all out of the picture, so Tammy Abraham is expected to keep his place, despite a dip in form with Roma. Southgate sees him as the natural understudy right now to Harry Kane.
With Southgate watching from the stands, Abraham was forced off with a shoulder strain last weekend against Udinese. The injury wasn’t serious, however, and the 24-year-old returned with the winner against Empoli on Monday night.
When it comes to Toney, Sky Sports News has been told the England manager has been impressed – as so many pundits have – by the form of Brentford’s main goal-getter. His season stats outdo even Rashford’s: Toney has notched five Premier League goals and 2 assists so far.
The 26-year-old’s excellent form stretches back to last season too – he’s scored 13 Premier League goals since January. That makes him hard to ignore.
Is this Dier’s big chance?
With Harry Maguire in the mire (he hasn’t started a Premier League game for a month and is seemingly bereft of confidence) Southgate has a problem in defence.
John Stones and Kyle Walker are both struggling with minor injuries, and so will need to be assessed before any England call-up. If included, their game-time may have to be measured.
All of that plays into Dier’s hands. His consistently impressive performances for Spurs – towards the end of last season and at the start of this – mean he is arguably England’s most in-form centre-back right now. He was before the last squad selection too, back in May, when Southgate admitted he was close to a recall.
But the England boss also pointed out that Dier is used in a fairly specialist position by Antonio Conte – the middle of a back three – and that England will often switch between that formation and a back four.
“We know Eric, and we don’t know some of the younger ones,” was how Southgate explained his omission in May. Dier hasn’t played for England since November 2020.
No issues in midfield
Whether Conor Gallagher has done enough to keep his place will be the key question here. He probably has, and will hope that the new Chelsea manager Graham Potter gives him as much game-time as Thomas Tuchel did.
Kalvin Phillips’ return to fitness will be a blessed relief to Southgate – he’s missed a month of football with a shoulder injury, but came off the bench for Manchester City late in last week’s Champions League win over Sevilla.
England’s medical staff will have to carefully Phillips’ workload, however, as he returns to match fitness.
Elsewhere, it’s likely to be the usual midfield population of Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Mount and James Ward-Prowse.
Easy pickings in goal
With England’s number one, Jordan Pickford, missing with a thigh injury, it will be a chance for someone else to stake their claim as first choice understudy.
No surprises here – expect Nick Pope, Aaron Ramsdale and Dean Henderson to be included.
Will any young players make the grade?
Unlike his predecessor, Roy Hodgson, Southgate’s instinct is to name a larger initial squad in case of any subsequent injury withdrawals, rather than to offer late call-ups to players initially outside the camp.
Combined with that, the England boss is always looking to promote talent from the under-21s, and the logistics for this camp may help Liverpool’s 19-year-old star, Harvey Elliott.
Elliott is currently part of the u21s squad, whose friendly matches have been organised to mirror those of the senior team: they play Italy away the day before Southgate’s team, then Germany at home a day after the senior team play the same opposition at Wembley.
Promoting Elliott to the senior ranks at any stage would be about as seamless as it gets.
Another sparkling youngster, Sporting forward Marcus Edwards impressed earlier this week with a man-of-the-match Champions League performance against Tottenham – the club that released him three years ago. But don’t expect a surprise call-up for him. Yet.
England’s opening match of the World Cup against Iran is in 67 days’ time.