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England: 10 things for Gareth Southgate to focus on in upcoming World Cup qualifiers 


The road to this summer’s European Championships starts now – with three World Cup qualifiers. 

It’s unusual, beginning the qualification process for one tournament before the completion of another. Nevertheless, what this international batch of matches against San Marino, Albania and Poland does is give Gareth Southgate ample opportunity to rotate and experiment with his 26-man squad. 

Both at the back and further forward, there are more questions than answers right now. With one eye on the Euros, Sportsmail takes a look at 10 things for Southgate to focus on over the next week.  

England boss Gareth Southgate can use these matches to rotate his 26-man England squad

England boss Gareth Southgate can use these matches to rotate his 26-man England squad 

England face San Marino, Albania and Poland in qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

England face San Marino, Albania and Poland in qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar 

WHO WILL EMERGE AS JORDAN PICKFORD’S CLOSEST CHALLENGER FOR NO 1 JERSEY? 

Jordan Pickford’s rib injury and his subsequent absence from this England squad represents a massive opportunity, particularly for Nick Pope and Dean Henderson. 

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Burnley keeper Pope has been a regular in the squad since 2018 now, but has only four caps to his name, with Everton keeper Pickford preferred in all competitive fixtures. 

As for Henderson, it seemed for much of this season that he had blown his chance, confined to the bench at Manchester United behind David De Gea. 

But De Gea’s unavailability over the past month has handed Henderson his chance and, so far, he’s taken it with a string of solid performances. 

West Brom’s Sam Johnstone has been called up too, but all eyes will very much be on Pope and Henderson over the next week, as they stake a claim for the No 1 jersey at this summer’s Euros. 

These three qualifiers represent a huge opportunity for Nick Pope (R) and Dean Henderson (L)

These three qualifiers represent a huge opportunity for Nick Pope (R) and Dean Henderson (L) 

AN OPPORTUNITY TO EXPERIMENT AT CENTRE BACK…   

Southgate named five out-and-out centre backs in his squad for this international window, with Kyle Walker a right-sided option in a back-three. 

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Man United captain Harry Maguire is a favourite of Southgate’s, despite some patchy displays including a first-half red card back in October against Denmark, so can be expected to be first choice.  

Yet the second spot in the centre back pairing – assuming a back four is Southgate’s flavour of the month – is up for grabs. 

The frontrunner is John Stones, who is rejuvenated and has been exceptional for Manchester City this season. He also partnered Maguire in the run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals. 

However, Conor Coady impressed for his country during the back-end of last year, as did Tyrone Mings at times too. Eric Dier, who has shifted back to defence permanently for club and country, is another tried-and-tested option, and the most experienced international option with 45 caps.  

Harry Maguire and John Stones played together in the run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals

Harry Maguire and John Stones played together in the run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals 

STRAIGHT SHOOT-OUT AT LEFT BACK

Much like Stones’ drastic improvement in form this campaign, Luke Shaw’s spate of consistent performances for Man United sees him return to the international fold for the first time since 2018. 

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Ben Chilwell has been England’s man at left back since the World Cup – but he has been in and out of the starting XI at Chelsea since Thomas Tuchel took over. 

As things stand, these two are the obvious picks for the Euros this summer. They can stamp down their credentials for a starting spot straight away. 

Luke Shaw talks to Southgate during training at St George's Park on Tuesday

Chilwell has been Southgate's preferred option at left back since the 2018 World Cup

Luke Shaw (left) and Ben Chilwell (right) are the obvious options for Southgate at left back

PROVE YOU DESERVE YOUR SPOT MORE THAN TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD  

The biggest omission from Southgate’s squad was Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. Nope, he isn’t injured – the England boss confirmed that the 22-year-old had been dropped. 

Instead, Southgate opted to pick Chelsea’s Reece James, Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier and Man City’s Walker. 

Over the course of three games, all are expected to be handed a chance. Trippier is undoubtedly in favour under Southgate, despite his 10-week ban for breaching FA gambling regulations. 

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But don’t rule out James, who impressed in October and November, or Walker, who also starred in Russia three years ago. 

If all three impress, Alexander-Arnold will find it tough to reclaim his spot for this summer. 

Reece James impressed for England during the October and November internationals

Kieran Trippier has been a regular in the England setup since Southgate took charge in 2016

Reece James (L) and Kieran Trippier (R) were picked ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold 

NO MORE ILL-DISCIPLINE!

Nope, this isn’t a quick-switch to problems with the England rugby union team. 

Last year, England had three red cards in the space of five games. 

Walker was dismissed in Iceland, Maguire went early doors against Denmark and James was given his second yellow card after showing dissent to the referee following a home defeat to the Danes. 

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In tournament football, a lack of discipline and yellow cards, resulting in suspensions, can kill a team’s momentum. In these qualifiers, which England are expected to win, they’d do well not to shoot themselves in the foot again.  

Harry Maguire was sent-off in the first half against Denmark in the October defeat at Wembley

Harry Maguire was sent-off in the first half against Denmark in the October defeat at Wembley

CAN DECLAN RICE BE AS VOCAL IN MIDFIELD AS JORDAN HENDERSON?

Declan Rice’s ascent – as he continues to thrive in an overachieving West Ham side – shows no signs of abating. 

He is now a near-certain starter for England. Quite right too, in a position on the pitch where Southgate lacks depth found in other places. 

But Rice will be without Jordan Henderson for this batch of games, as the Liverpool skipper misses out with a groin injury which makes him touch-and-go for the summer too. 

Likely to play alongside the less-experienced Kalvin Phillips, Jude Bellingham or James Ward-Prowse, Rice must prove he can provide the noise in the centre of the park. All the evidence so far suggests he most certainly can. 

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Declan Rice must be the voice in the centre of midfield in the absence of Jordan Henderson

Declan Rice must be the voice in the centre of midfield in the absence of Jordan Henderson 

AT 17, IS THERE REALLY A SUMMER SPOT AVAILABLE FOR JUDE BELLINGHAM? 

If Rice’s ascent has been impressive, Jude Bellingham’s has been meteoric. 

While the likes of Curtis Jones was selected for the Under 21s this month, Southgate was clear he wanted 17-year-old Bellingham to play with the big boys. 

Since signing for Borussia Dortmund from Birmingham last summer, Bellingham has come on leaps and bounds and is the German’s club youngest-scorer in competitive football. 

Given clearance to travel to England for these qualifiers, Bellingham will surely get a chance. And even if it’s San Marino, a virtuoso display would get pulses racing about the next young star to break onto the international scene. 

Jude Bellingham made his England debut at the age of 17 against Ireland back in November

Jude Bellingham made his England debut at the age of 17 against Ireland back in November 

NAIL DOWN THE ATTACKING STARS WHO WILL SUPPORT HARRY KANE…  

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One area where Southgate definitely does have options is in the attacking positions. 

Captain Harry Kane is the only guaranteed starter. In this squad, Mason Mount, Jesse Lingard, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are all competing for three if not two positions. 

That’s not to mention the absence of Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and James Maddison due to injury as well. 

Again, these qualifiers provide a perfect platform for Southgate to trial all his abundance of quality in the final-third. 

Jesse Lingard, who starred for England in the 2018 World Cup, received a well-earned recall

Jesse Lingard, who starred for England in the 2018 World Cup, received a well-earned recall 

OLLIE WATKINS OR DOMINIC CALVERT-LEWIN AS KANE’S MAIN BACK-UP?

Ollie Watkins earned his first ever international call-up, following 12 goals in all competitions this season for Aston Villa. 

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Dominic Calvert-Lewin, meanwhile, has not yet hit the heights of the beginning of the season in 2021, though he does already have two England goals to his name in five appearances.

The games against San Marino and Albania in particular give these two the ideal opportunity to add – or start, in Watkins’ case – to their goal tally. 

Ollie Watkins earned his first call-up to the England squad after a good season with Aston Villa

Dominic Calvert-Lewin has scored two goals in five England caps so far in his international career

Ollie Watkins (L) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin are both battling to be Harry Kane’s main back-up 

EXPERIMENT FOR TWO GAMES… BEFORE TRICKY POLAND CLASH  

Southgate knows this is his last chance to work with his players before the end of the season, and the Euros. 

Particularly against inferior opposition therefore, the England boss must take the time to experiment, with both personnel and formations.

However, he shouldn’t lose sight of the competitive nature of the fixtures, especially a tricky Wembley encounter against Robert Lewandowski’s Poland next week. 

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The road to Qatar starts now – even if the Euros are at the forefront of his mind.  



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