England take on Italy and Germany in the UEFA Nations League this month, in what represents the final chance for Gareth Southgate to fine-tune his plans for the winter World Cup.
Ahead of those games, we look at five talking points for Southgate and his side.
Out of favour favourites must prove a point
As ever, the announcement of the England squad was greeted with a mixed reception. While there was praise for the first inclusion of the in-form Ivan Toney, question marks have been asked over Southgate’s selection of a number of names out of form and out of favour at club level.
Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw retained their places despite struggling for games at Manchester United, with the former’s selection particularly contentious following an extended period of poor performances.
The centre-back has made just three appearances this season and has been on the losing side in each, with United having had an upturn in form since the club captain was dropped at Old Trafford.
Shaw has also lost his place to summer signing Tyrell Malacia. Shaw’s two appearances in the Premier League this season both ended in defeat, while his most recent saw the left-back hauled off at half-time as United were battered 4-0 at Brentford.
Shaw shone as England reached the final of Euro 2020 and Maguire has rarely faulted for the Three Lions despite his struggles at club level. Each must prove a point in the upcoming games to retain their dropping credit in the bank however, while the likes of Mason Mount and Jarrod Bowen also need to impress after slow starts to the season.
Who will emerge as Harry Kane’s deputy
Southgate will have most of his plans for Qatar in place, but the role of Harry Kane’s deputy remains a position without a clear frontrunner. Kane is perhaps the sole genuine world-class talent in the Three Lions’ ranks and when fit is a guarantee to start, though Southgate will want dependable options elsewhere in the squad.
Ollie Watkins, Marcus Rashford, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Callum Wilson are all missing from the current squad, with Tammy Abraham and Ivan Toney called in at centre-forward. Toney’s selection is one that intrigues following his route to the England squad, having honed his talents in the lower divisions before impressing for Brentford in the Premier League.
— Ivan Toney (@ivantoney24) September 20, 2022
The 26-year-old has 17 league goals in 40 appearances in the top division for the Bees and has a mix of power, presence and inner-belief that Southgate will admire.
Abraham is the frontrunner for a place at the World Cup after 27 goals in all competitions for Roma last season. He has three in 11 appearances for the Three Lions, but has started the season with just two in seven Serie A games.
How to get the best from Jack Grealish?
Jack Grealish continues to divide opinion, with the Manchester City winger this week forced to answer questions on the criticism he receives from pundits and the media.
Grealish himself has admitted he needs to produce more in terms of tangible numbers, but has maintained his place in Southgate’s squad for the upcoming games. The 27-year-old was a fans’ favourite at Euro 2020, though there was frustration from some that his popularity did not lead to increased minutes as he failed to start a game.
Just over half (12) of his 23 England games have come from the start and he has completed the 90 minutes on just four occasions for the Three Lions.
"I deal with pressure well"
Jack Grealish believes there's much more to come from him at Manchester City 💪pic.twitter.com/Vloa3EVBgP
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) September 21, 2022
It is clear that Southgate maintains some reservations, but Grealish – whose impact off the bench changed the game against Germany in the last 16 last summer – has shown that he can bring an x-factor in the England shirt.
Grealish is one of a few players for who the colours of the national side do not appear to weigh heavier and his ability to draw both defenders and fouls could prove crucial if utilised in the right manner.
Lack of goals an issue?
England’s lack of goals across the pitch appears to be an issue heading into the World Cup, with the Three Lions having scored just once in their last four fixtures.
There remains an over-reliance on Harry Kane (50) and Raheem Sterling (19) in the final third, with the next-highest scorer in Southgate’s squad centre-back Harry Maguire on seven goals.
Excluding Kane, Sterling and first inclusion Ivan Toney, the ten midfielders and forwards in the current England squad have scored a combined 20 goals in 230 caps.
That is a statistic that must improve if England are to have success in Qatar, with the likes of Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden among the players who have proven at club level that they are capable of producing more.
Dier deserves a chance
England’s winless Nations League campaign to date has seen Southgate use a back four in three of those four fixtures, including the humiliating home defeat to Hungary in June.
England were cut apart in an embarrassing 4-0 loss at Molineux, the Three Lions’ heaviest home defeat since 1928. The manner of that loss could see Southgate revert back to a three centre-back system, with the squad selected for September’s fixtures defence-heavy.
One man who could earn a chance should England move back to a three-man defence is Eric Dier, who has been in fine form as the centre-piece of Spurs’ similar system. Dier has found a home in the centre of the north London club’s defence where his passing range from deep has been a feature of Antonio Conte’s side.
— England (@England) September 20, 2022
The upcoming games with Italy and Germany are the perfect chance for Dier to underline his credentials against elite opposition, following a recall to the squad after an 18-month absence. On current form, he deserves his chance to stake a claim for Qatar.