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Five things on Gareth Southgate’s agenda for the international break

Gareth Southgate has named his England squad for the upcoming international break, with the Three Lions facing Ivory Coast and Switzerland in friendly fixtures.

The pause in the season allows Southgate time to fine-tune his side ahead of this summer’s UEFA Nations League campaign and the fast-approaching World Cup in Qatar.

England – runners-up at the delayed European Championship last summer – have limited preparation time ahead of the World Cup which begins in November and we’ve decided to look at five things that should be on Southgate’s agenda this week.

Pickford under pressure

Jordan Pickford’s status as number one has rarely been questioned for England, a combination of a lack of credible alternatives and his consistency at international level ensuring the Everton ‘keeper remains first choice.

Pickford has rarely faulted for England despite occasional erratic performances at club level, but the 28-year-old now faces serious competition for his position from Aaron Ramsdale.

Ramsdale has been a revelation at Arsenal since his arrival from Sheffield United last summer, silencing those who doubted the wisdom in signing a shot-stopper with successive Premier League relegations on his résumé.

Ramsdale ranks third in the Premier League for both clean sheets and save percentage this season, whilst his immediate impact at the Emirates will have impressed Southgate and his staff.

However, Ramsdale will miss the forthcoming internationals with a hip problem and the pressure is on Pickford to perform if selected this week. He remains number one for now – and Southgate has said as much –  but has a challenge to keep the gloves.

Uncertainty at centre-back

“I don’t think it ever crossed our minds not to select Harry Maguire for this squad,” Southgate said on Maguire following the announcement of his latest squad.

“There wasn’t a chance we weren’t going to call him up. He’s one of our best centre backs.”

Southgate has issued a show of faith in the Manchester United defender, despite the torrid time Maguire has endured this season with his form having been error-prone.

Maguire has survived the axe despite seeing club teammates Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford dropped, but there remains huge question marks over the 29-year-old despite his relative consistency at international level.

Centre-back remains an area of concern for Southgate, who has a number of names competing for a place but few who have made themselves certainties. John Stones perhaps remains first choice, whilst Ben White will be pushing for a chance after an impressive season with Arsenal and has the attributes to start attacking moves from deep.

Marc Guehi – a member of England’s u17 World Cup winning side in 2017 – is in the squad for the first time after shining at Crystal Palace and the 21-year-old will hope to edge out Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings for a place in Southgate’s plans moving forward.

Fresh faces at full-back

Southgate’s plans for the international break have been hindered with several withdrawals, among them right-back options Reece James and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

The duo had been selected over the more experienced Kyle Walker as Southgate looks to finalise a first choice, in what is arguably England’s strongest position in terms of depth.

Following the withdrawals, Southgate called up the uncapped Kyle Walker-Peters and Tyrick Mitchell to the squad and both should get a chance to impress.

Walker-Peters has enjoyed the best season of his career at Southampton and has impressed on both flanks for the Saints, a versatility that will appeal to Southgate as he finalises his World Cup plans.

Mitchell has impressed after becoming an undisputed regular in Crystal Palace’s new-look side and joins teammates Marc Guehi and Conor Gallagher in the England squad.

With Ben Chilwell and Kieran Trippier injured and Luke Shaw in indifferent form, the 22-year-old has been handed an unforeseen chance to stake his claim for more regular involvement.

Time to unleash Bellingham?

England’s run to the Euro 2020 final was built on the combative midfield axis of Declan Rice ad Kalvin Phillips, a duo which provided Southgate with security in front of his backline.

However, there were again questions marks over England’s ability to retain possession against elite sides, having come under sustained pressure from Italy after taking an initial lead.

It was a similar situation in the 2018 World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia and the Three Lions need midfielders comfortable and confident in possession in pressure situations.

The solution could already be among Southgate’s options, with Jude Bellingham continuing to enhance his reputation as one of world football’s finest prospects at Borussia Dortmund.

England have taken a patient approach with Bellingham and he has started just three games for the Three Lions to date, but in the absence of Phillips should be handed a chance to impress against Switzerland and the Ivory Coast.

He has featured in various midfield roles for Dortmund this season, providing 19 goal involvements, and has the fearlessness needed to thrive in the England midfield.

Watkins’ golden chance

Ollie Watkins’ form this season has perhaps not merited inclusion in the England squad, with the Aston Villa forward having struggled for consistency despite a haul of seven Premier League goals.

The 26-year-old was a late addition to the squad following Tammy Abraham’s withdrawal and finds himself as the only recognised centre-forward in the squad, with the exception of Harry Kane.

Watkins now has a golden chance to earn credit as Kane’s first-choice deputy moving forward, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin having endured an injury-ravaged season and Abraham – scorer of 23 goals at Roma this season – withdrawing from the squad.

Watkins should be handed minutes during the international break and will hope to make the most of the opportunity that has come his way.

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