England boss Southgate may have dropped major WC hint in Italy loss

Italy v England: Pictures

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England’s performance in defeat against Italy might not have been a ringing endorsement of World Cup winners-in-waiting, but this felt very much like a Three Lions’ 11 preparing to face Iran on November 21. Gareth Southgate appeared to be sending a message that his outfield team selection had the tournament-opener in mind. 

Southgate’s 5-2-3 system is much maligned but the England boss will argue that it has laid the foundations for the biggest successes during his six-year reign. The 51-year-old maintains a reputation for sticking with what he trusts – with no better example than the out-of-form Harry Maguire’s inclusion at San Siro – and the back-five system is filed under that category, despite calls for a more progressive formation. 

Maguire and Southgate will feel vindicated following the defender’s inclusion, amid much criticism of his performances for Manchester United. The 29-year-old performed admirably against Italy on the left side of three centre-backs, and is at his best when being allowed the freedom to break forward with the ball. 

Against Italy, Maguire lined up alongside Eric Dier and Kyle Walker. The latter will surely start against Iran on the right of a back three, where his ability to sprint back and prevent counter-attacks is a key asset to England.

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Dier – playing for his country for the first time since November 2020 – faces strong competition for his place from John Stones, but a solid display in this Nations League clash could push him ahead of the suspended Manchester City man. The Tottenham star’s excellent Premier League form has seen him emerge as not only a contender to travel to Qatar, but as someone who perhaps deserves to start England’s first game. 

Jude Bellingham’s emergence in midfield allows England to be more mobile in the middle of the pitch, where Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice had formed an excellent, if a little rigid, partnership. Phillips is set to undergo shoulder surgery and faces a late rush to be fit for the World Cup, allowing Bellingham to start in the Manchester City player’s place. 

Southgate’s biggest worry is that a front three of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden struggled to create chances, aside from a double Gianluigi Donnarumma save to keep out the England captain. Kane will go into the World Cup with the burden of chasing Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 England goals.

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The Spurs striker might have wanted that record cast aside before the first group game in Qatar. A solitary fixture against Germany on Monday – in which the 29-year-old is set to be rested – provides Kane’s only chance to grab the three goals necessary to ensure his wait does not tick into the World Cup. 

There are now few chances for the likes of Luke Shaw, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount to convince Southgate that they should start against Iran. Bukayo Saka has been shoehorned into a left wing-back role, while Reece James seems to be the favourite on the right. 

Grealish and Mount will hope that Foden’s below-par performance will be enough to squeeze their way into Southgate’s thinking before the tournament. With just one more match before England go to Qatar, Southgate will instead hope that his stars can play their way into form. 

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