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England squad: Five big decisions for Gareth Southgate

Gareth Southgate will name his England squad for the FIFA World Cup on Thursday, as the Three Lions announce their 26-man squad for the tournament in Qatar.

Those in contention will be eagerly awaiting news of involvement, with England travelling to the Middle East with genuine aspirations of ending the nation’s wait for major silverware.

Ahead of Southgate’s squad announcement, we look at five major decisions for the England manager.

Is there room for James Maddison?

James Maddison could hardly have done more to state his case for inclusion this winter, with the Leicester midfielder having been in sublime form for the Foxes.

Maddison has not been capped for England since making his debut as a substitute in 2019, but has matured on and off the pitch since an incident in which he was pictured in a casino just days after leaving the England squad through illness.

The 25-year-old has been in excellent form this season, with six goals and four assists in 12 Premier League appearances. No English midfielder has provided more goal contributions since the start of last season, while only Harry Kane can better his haul among all English players in 2022.

Maddison’s maverick match-winning ability could be utilised in tight games in Qatar, with Southgate’s insistence that his squad is selected on form set to carry little weight if the Foxes’ star is omitted. He might be a wildcard option, but one that appears worth taking.

Does Southgate gamble on fitness doubts?

Rarely does a tournament arrive without members of the squad facing a race against time to make it, with England currently keeping a watchful eye over a number of names battling against the clock.

Reece James is a confirmed absentee, with the Chelsea right-back having not featured since sustaining a knee injury against AC Milan in early October. Kyle Walker has also not featured in over a month, but is ahead of James in terms of timeframe to return.

Meanwhile, Walker’s Manchester City teammate Kalvin Phillips – integral to the run to the final of Euro 2020 – is hoping for a place on the plane, but has featured for just 14 minutes so far this season due to fitness issues.

England have past experience of taking names to tournaments short of full fitness, with little success. The expanded squad format allows for a potential risk, but is Southgate willing to run that risk given further issues could arrive?

Who provides back-up to Harry Kane?

Harry Kane will lead England’s challenge in Qatar and the England captain can be expected to play almost every minute if fit at the World Cup.

A capable deputy is required if England’s worst fears are realised however and it has been a competitive challenge to join the Tottenham star in the squad.

Tammy Abraham has been consistently included in Southgate’s squads over the past year, but has suffered a downturn in form during the current campaign. After an impressive first season at Roma, he has scored just three goals in 18 appearances this season and has failed to take his limited chances with England when they have arrived.

Ivan Toney earned a first international call in September after a right start to the season at Brentford, but was not handed his England debut. Marcus Rashford is a former Southgate favourite and has returned to form this season. The Manchester United forward can operate in numerous roles across the forward line and that will aid his chances of selection.

Could there also be a place for Callum Wilson? He won the last of his four caps in October 2019, but has been a consistent chance-taker for Newcastle. Only Kane can better his minute-per-goal ratio since the start of last season, while he has six goals in ten league appearances in 2022/23.

Maguire to be included in unconvincing centre-back group?

Who starts at centre-back has been a topic of much discussion, depending on whether Southgate chooses a back four or five at the tournament. John Stones will begin the World Cup as first-choice defender and has returned to fitness at Manchester City in recent weeks, but the options to partner Stones remain unconvincing.

Harry Maguire is expected to be included despite a challenging period at Manchester United, with the 29-year-old having lost his place as an automatic starter at Old Trafford. He has made just two starts in the Premier League so far this season, but Southgate has remained steadfast in his defence of Maguire and will value his tournament experience in Qatar.

The doubt over Kyle Walker potentially removes athleticism and speed from a back three, with the likes of Eric Dier and Conor Coady noticeably less mobile. Ben White, who has performed at right-back for much of the season so far for Arsenal, could prove a fine alternative as the right-sided central defender in a three.

Joe Gomez, Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori – who did not feature during September’s fixtures – are outside chances to be included.

Opportunity at left-back

Ben Chilwell is set to miss the World Cup after sustaining a hamstring injury, a moment of more bad luck for the defender who failed to play a single minute at Euro 2020.

Luke Shaw’s return to form has eased the concerns over Chilwell and the Manchester United defender will start the tournament as first-choice at left-back. Who provides cover for Shaw remains to be seen, with Southgate set to make a decision on whether to take a recognised left-sided defender or compensate in alternative ways.

Kieran Trippier has featured at left-back on occasion for England, but will be expected to start on the right flank with Kyle Walker and Reece James either doubtful or absent. Bukayo Saka was tried – somewhat unsuccessfully – in a left wing-back role against Italy in September, but his best football at club level has come as a right winger for Arsenal.

Established options are minimal. James Justin and Kyle Walker-Peters have operated on both flanks and won full England caps earlier this year, but are both currently sidelined. Crystal Palace’s Tyrick Mitchell – who made his senior debut in March – would be favourite if Southgate decides on a recognised left-back.

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