With the World Cup edging ever closer, England manager Gareth Southgate will likely be having many a sleepless night pondering his squad for the tournament in Qatar. Southgate is likely to have a good idea of the majority of his squad, but there are still places up for grabs. The fact that just 16 months will have passed from the delayed European Championships to the start of the World Cup in November means that there has not been much time for new players to break into the squad and establish a claim for a regular spot in the side. Now, there is just one international break remaining before Southgate must announce the squad that will fly to Qatar with the aim of bringing the famous trophy home.
England have two games at the end of September to utilise as their final tests before all focus turns to the World Cup. These games are competitive Nations League fixtures against Italy and Germany. Whilst Southgate may be keen for his side to face two tough opponents in competitive circumstances as part of their tournament preparation, it does mean he may have less opportunity to try new tactics and see new faces than he would have done had these fixtures been friendlies. With that in mind, there is likely to be only a select few, if any, players who are given an opportunity to disrupt the order and really give Southgate a selection dilemma ahead of the World Cup.
This post looks at three players who will be desperate for that opportunity. All three have been performing to a consistently high level for their clubs and should be presented with a chance at the end of this month. It is an England squad who came agonisingly close to Euros glory last summer, but very few of the players in the squad are untouchable. Some fresh impetus, as well as players who are very much in form, could be welcome in an already very capable squad.
Eric Dier was an important player for England during their run to the 2018 World Cup semi-final in Russia. In that tournament Dier was deployed in a holding midfield role and it came at a stage in his career when Dier was playing both in midfield and defence for club and country. Whilst his versatility was initially an asset, it may have been that his ability to play in midfield and defence meant that he was not settled in either role. Now Dier has seemingly waved goodbye to his midfield days and has established himself as a central defender for Tottenham Hotspur.
Dier has endured some difficult times since that World Cup run, culminating in his omission from the squad at last year’s Euros. It would have hurt Dier to have to watch on from the outside as his countrymen enjoyed a very positive tournament largely on home soil. The Spurs man has worked hard in his time away from international football and looks determined to make sure Southgate cannot ignore his form and allows him to return in time for his second World Cup finals.
Dier is one of a number of players who has thrived under the management of Antonio Conte at Spurs. The Italian manager has entrusted Dier with the important role as the central defender in his back three. This responsibility, coupled with a long run playing the same position, has seen Dier flourish. The player, who got his footballing education in Portugal, has said himself that he believes he is currently playing the best football of his career and it is difficult to argue against him.
If Southgate is to play a back three at the World Cup, or even if he wants to have the option to do so, Dier must surely be at the forefront of his thinking. Dier is now at a point where he knows the role inside out and is performing very well on a weekly basis under a very demanding manager. He should certainly now be ahead of Conor Coady – who is generally included for his ability to play in a back three – and with the indifferent form of Harry Maguire now could be the perfect time for Dier to be brought back into the fold. His time spent playing in midfield also means that he is very comfortable on the ball which could be crucial for England; especially in group games that are likely to see England dominate possession. Now 28, Dier is in the prime of his career. He is an experienced head and his concentration is far better than it was earlier in his career. Dier has become a leader in Tottenham’s defence, perhaps it is time for him to be a leader for his country.
One player who is competing with Dier for one of the spots in the heart of England’s defence is Fikayo Tomori. The 24-year-old made the bold decision to leave Chelsea for AC Milan last season following a successful loan at the San Siro and has not looked back since. Tomori has become a stalwart in the AC Milan defence and was instrumental in the Italian giants’ Series A title win last season. The defender should be commended for taking the risk of moving to Milan to progress his career, but it feels as though there has been a slight case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as far as Southgate is concerned.
Despite this, Tomori was included in the England boss’ last squad and started in the 0-0 Nations League draw with Italy. However, he did not feature in the other two games. Tomori is a different profile of defender to the likes of John Stones and Harry Maguire. He is quicker than the pair and aggressive too, but this is not at the expense of ability on the ball. With Stones and, in particular, Maguire there is a lack of pace in the England back line that can be exposed. Adding Tomori into the defence helps alleviate that concern somewhat. With his place in the Manchester United starting line-up no longer a guarantee, it feels as though it is Maguire’s whose place is most up for grabs; although Southgate has backed the ex-Leicester City defender in his tricky periods.
Tomori has picked up where he left off last season at the beginning of this campaign. The Cobham graduate has been partnered by the relatively inexperienced Pierre Kalulu in the absence of Simon Kjaer. This has meant that Tomori has had to take on responsibility in marshalling the back four rather than allow Kjaer to take control. He has looked incredibly comfortable in doing this and it can only help his claims for a spot in the side. It feels as though it would be an oversight not to give Tomori a chance in at least one of the two fixtures this month. Southgate does not need to use these games to look at Stones and Maguire – he knows what he gets from his tried and tested pair – he should be using them to see how the likes of Tomori and Dier can perform.
Looking further up the field and Southgate must consider which strikers he will take to Qatar. Harry Kane is perhaps the only player who is completely untouchable in the England side, such is his quality. If disaster was to strike and Kane was injured for the World Cup, it is very likely that Tammy Abraham would be the player tasked with filling the enormous void up top. However, aside from Abraham it feels as though there is a place up for grabs if Southgate is to take three strikers.
In last year’s European Championships, Southgate opted to take just two conventional strikers in Kane and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The ability of Marcus Rashford to play as a winger or a striker allowed the England boss to feel comfortable enough that this approach would not leave him short of firepower should injuries or suspension occur. However, Rashford’s form has nosedived since the beginning of last season and he is only now starting to show glimpses of his former self, meaning that his place in the England squad is far from guaranteed. Calvert-Lewin himself is also unlikely to make the squad unless he enjoys a significant upturn in fortunes. After being absent through injury for the majority of last season, Calvert-Lewin is also yet to play for Everton thus far this term. Assuming that Abraham replaces Calvert-Lewin as the second striker, this leaves a place up for grabs.
One player who will feel he has a really strong chance of being in the England camp at the end of this month in order to really stake a claim for a seat on there plane to Qatar is Brentford’s Ivan Toney. Toney has worked his way up the football pyramid, having started at Northampton Town before being signed by Newcastle United in 2015. Toney arrived at Brentford in 2020 as Ollie Watkins’ replacement, having impressed at Peterborough United but having also had spells at the likes of Barnsley, Shrewsbury Town, Scunthorpe United, and Wigan Athletic. Having taken the scenic route to the Premier League, Toney knows how to scrap. Despite only being 5 foot 10, you would be forgiven for assuming Toney was taller due to his strength and physicality, as well as his aerial ability. He offers something different to the likes of Calvert-Lewin and Watkins in that he is incredibly tenacious and dogged in his pressing. Toney loves to get into a physical battle with defenders, something that has no doubt been learnt from his time in the English Football League, and this makes him a nightmare to play against – especially for international defenders who may not be used to this.
There is much more to Toney than brawn, however. He is a much more intelligent striker than he is given credit for and deceptively quick. His finishing ability is very good and he is highly efficient in and around the box when chances fall his way. His 14 goals and six assists in all competitions last season are testament to that fact. This season Toney has started like a man possessed, with tunnel vision for an England spot. The 26-year-old striker has five goals and two assists in the first six league games of this season. His hat-trick in Brentford’s 5-2 win over Leeds United displayed his full repertoire to all watching. A cooly converted penalty was followed by a thunderous free-kick – something not many would have known Toney was capable of – but the third showed his striker’s instinct the best. After the ball broke loose following Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier’s attempts to clear, Toney gained possession and had the presence of mind to round Meslier before having the composure and calmness to dribble towards the Leeds box and cooly chip the ball over the backtracking Leeds defender who was desperately trying to protect his goal. Three very different goals that each highlighted different strings to Toney’s bow.
It was 0-0 at the time of Toney’s penalty in that game against Leeds, but as soon as it was awarded Brentford fans could have already celebrated the goal. There are few sights rarer than Toney missing from the penalty spot. In fact, Toney has scored 24 penalties in his career and missed just one. Whilst this is unlikely to be at the forefront of Southgate’s thinking when selecting his squad, it will certainly do Toney no harm; especially considering England’s penalty shootout failure in the Euros final last summer. Kane is the only top level English striker that is arguably in better form than Toney. Southgate would be foolish not to give him his first taste of international football this month.
So, Dier, Tomori, and Toney are three players that, when considering form, really should be given an opportunity by Southgate in the forthcoming international break. Perhaps Italy and Germany provide the perfect tests as, for Toney in particular, it will be an opportunity to demonstrate that they are capable of competing with high-calibre international opposition.
In truth, there are worryingly few players from last summer’s Euros squad who are really in-form currently. Perhaps this is the perfect time for this trio of players to capitalise on the momentum of their strong start to the season and give Southgate a real decision to make come the World Cup.