England Nations League preview: The squad, the opposition and Southgate’s dilemmas

As the majority of club sides gear up for the delayed start to the season due to the overrun of last season, international fixtures seem an unnecessary inclusion at the beginning of the 2020/21 football calendar.

However, UEFA have gone ahead with the Nations League fixtures despite the fact that the majority of countries competing will be without certain players for a number of reasons, varying from recent involvement in European club competition to testing positive for Covid-19. The following assesses the England squad selected by Gareth Southgate, the players missing out, and also the opposition.

Fixtures:

Sat 5th September 5pm – Iceland (a)

Tuesday 8th September 7.45pm – Denmark (a)

The squad:

Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope, Dean Henderson (first inclusion)

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieron Trippier, Kyle Walker, Joe Gomez, Conor Coady (first inclusion), Michael Keane, Tyrone Mings, Ainsley Maitland-Niles (first inclusion)

Kalvin Phillips (first inclusion), Declan Rice, James Ward-Prowes, Eric Dier, Mason Mount, Phil Foden (first inclusion), Jack Grealish (first inclusion)

Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Tammy Abraham, Danny Ings, Mason Greenwood (first inclusion), Jadon Sancho

Talking points:

As if the difficulties that playing international fixtures during a global pandemic cause weren’t enough, Gareth Southgate has had to deal with one of his regular starters being found guilty of a number of charges while on holiday in Greece. Harry Maguire was initially selected for the squad but, after being found guilty in Greek court on the same day, was subsequently withdrawn from the squad.

Southgate has given a number of players their first opportunity to meet up with the squad, including youngsters Dean Henderson, Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood. Following the withdrawals of Harry Winks and Marcus Rashford, as well as Maguire, Conor Coady, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and, most notably, Jack Grealish were all drafted in to join the squad for the first time. Grealish’s initial omission was a source of great debate with most feeling his form last season warranted his inclusion, particularly after Southgate claimed previously he needed to prove himself in the Premier League to be considered. In a contradiction to Southgate’s statement on Grealish, Kalvin Phillips has been included in the squad after a fine season guiding Leeds to the Premier League. Elsewhere, Southampton’s Danny Ings makes his first squad in five years and club team mate James Ward-Prowes also earns a recall to the squad.

Kalvin Phillips made the squad despite never playing a Premier League game

One thing Southgate needs to decide well in advance of the Euros next summer is who his number one goalkeeper is going to be. Through Southgate’s time in charge it has been Jordan Pickford who has had his trust but after a couple of shaky seasons at Everton can he be counted in to continue to defend England’s goal? Despite this, Pickford has rarely let Southgate down in an England shirt and performed heroics in England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semi-final. His distribution is also a very useful tool for England and one area where he is above his rivals for the shirt.

The form of Nick Pope at Burnley cannot be ignored and he was pipped at the post for the Premier League golden glove, after failing to keep a clean sheet in the final game of the season. Due to the direct manner in which Burnley play, there are question marks over his distribution as he is not expected to be as adept with his feet as many goalkeepers are now and this could count against him. Dean Henderson also comes off the back of a fine season, his first in the Premier League, and has recently signed a new long-term contract at Manchester United. He will be full of confidence and keen to be given a chance for England. The Nations League games could provide Southgate with the perfect chance to trial either keeper in a competitive fixture without as much risk as there would be giving them their first competitive action in a major tournament. The England boss knows what Pickford offers him and it will be a surprise if he doesn’t use this opportunity to have a look at another potential candidate for the number one jersey.

Could Henderson make his senior England debut?

One position of note is left back as injuries to both Chelsea new boy Ben Chilwell and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw have led to Southgate not naming any recognised left backs in the squad. It will be interesting to see whether Southgate utilises one of the right backs in the squad to deputise or relies on the versatility of players such as Tyrone Mings, who started his career as a left back, or Ainsley Maitland-Niles whose adaptability will be a key reason for his inclusion.

Alternatively England could opt to play three at the back, a formation which gave them so much success at the 2018 World Cup, where they could use a winger in the left wing-back role. Southgate used this formation in Russia due to his lack of faith in any of his centre-back pairings and if he is to play four at the back moving forward then he needs to find a solid partnership. Maguire’s absence won’t help that process as he is generally seen as a guaranteed starter. Maguire has been paired with Joe Gomez in more recent England fixtures and this may be the partnership Southgate has in mind but he can’t give the pair another test together this time around. Conor Coady’s call up could also be a clue that Southgate’s hand may be forced to play three at the back due to the players at his disposal, as the Wolves captain has excelled in the middle of a back three for Wolves in the Premier League.

With Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both missing out with knee injuries and Harry Winks dropping out of the squad, the midfield is likely to have an experimental feel to it. Declan Rice, Eric Dier and Kalvin Phillips may well all be competing to be the sole defensive pivot if England are to play a 4-3-3 formation. Aside from the pivot, the other two midfield slots could be two from James Ward-Prowes, Mason Mount and Phil Foden, however Southgate could also consider Jack Grealish and Ainsley Maitland-Niles as options for the two central midfield positions. This despite Southgate stating he sees Grealish more as a winger. Ward-Prowes may be the main beneficiary as he is the only conventional central midfielder in the squad, with the others playing most of their football as either defensive or attacking midfielders. Whichever three players Southgate combines, assuming he does opt for a midfield three, they will not have played together often if at all so it will be intriguing to see how England perform in two potentially difficult fixtures.

Ward-Prowes could benefit from midfield absentees

In attack is where England excel with genuinely world class players they can call upon. It’s hard to think of any forward lines in international football with more ability and potential, with the exception of perhaps France. Harry Kane has been able to recreate his club form for his country which is where so many of England’s big names have failed in the past and guarantees goals. Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling are two of the most exciting wingers in world football and Marcus Rashford is a more than capable deputy although he has withdrawn from this particular squad. Danny Ings has earned his chance and can perhaps expect to be ahead of Tammy Abraham in the pecking order should Kane be replaced at any point.

Kane is England’s captain and talisman

With a number of new additions on top of some players that have featured regularly in Southgate’s time as England manager it will be interesting to see how Southgate approaches these Nations League fixtures. Will he place his trust in the players who have performed for him so far in his tenure or will he experiment with some of the new inclusions?

Potential line-ups:

Should Southgate opt for a 4-3-3 formation he could line up like this
If Southgate reverts to three at the back this could be his starting eleven

The opposition:

Saturday’s trip to Iceland sees the two countries meet for the first time since that night at Euro 2016 which was so infamous for England. Iceland have sustained their status as a team who are difficult to beat and have gained the respect of the footballing world following their Euro 2016 campaign. They will be without Premier League pair Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johan Berg Gudmundsson which is a major blow but should still be a difficult proposition for England. They will surrender possession and look to be very difficult to break down and are likely to be looking to utilise set pieces as their best chances of scoring. England will be very wary of what happened the last time the two sides met and will be looking to put the demons of the last fixture to rest with a win.

Iceland dumped England out of Euro 2016 the last time the two sides met

Denmark will be more technical than Iceland and possess genuine quality. Christian Eriksen is the talisman and will be the centre of everything going forward for the Danes while the likes of Tottenham new boy Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will provide bite in midfield. England will need to be confident in possession and it may be down to whoever is tasked with anchoring the midfield to get close to Eriksen and stop him causing problems. RB Leipzig’s Yussef Poulson is a handful up front a names such as Kasper Schmeichel and Andreas Christenson will be familiar to England fans.

The kit:

Nike have released a number of country’s new kits prior to the Nations League fixtures and England are no different. The minimalistic home design and the blue patterned away kit pictured below may go down as classics, particularly if England are successful at the Euros.

England’s new home kit (left) and away kit (right)

The Nations League

The Nations League was created with the intention of countries playing less meaningful friendlies, and could be considered a success after its maiden competition which culminated in a four team tournament last summer. The ability to qualify for the Euros through the Nations League made it a little complicated and at times difficult to follow but the general consensus is most football fans would rather watch their country play a competitive game against a country at a similar level than a friendly which becomes tiresome after several changes for each side in the second half.

3 thoughts on “England Nations League preview: The squad, the opposition and Southgate’s dilemmas

  1. Great article. The whole no left back thing is confusing, even though both Chilwell and Shaw are injured, why not look at other players who could fill that role such as Saka

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I appreciate it. I agree, this would have been the perfect opportunity to have a look at Saka in that position. Even someone like Charlie Taylor at Burnley could have been a better option than playing someone out of position

      Liked by 1 person

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