England’s friendly against Ivory Coast on Tuesday is another opportunity for Gareth Southgate to experiment with his line-up and fine-tune his tactics ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
England head into the game having come from behind to beat Switzerland 2-1 at Wembley on Saturday, with Southgate handing debuts to Marc Guehi, Kyle Walker-Peters and Tyrick Mitchell.
Speaking in his press conference afterwards, Southgate reiterated his commitment to rotation. “We’ll make changes,” he said of the Ivory Coast game. “We think that’s the right thing to do.
“We want to keep all of the squad involved. I think that has been a strength for us. Players who come in perform well at the level and the team march on.”
Back three or back four?
Will we see a change of system as well as changes to personnel?
England’s success at the last World Cup was built on a back three, with Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire and John Stones flanked by wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young.
The England boss has sought to move away from that shape in recent years but he reverted to it at Wembley on Saturday, with Guehi, Conor Coady and Ben White, a late replacement for John Stones, who withdrew with a minor injury, starting at centre-back.
It was notable, though, that Southgate switched to a back four when England were chasing a winning goal in the second half, with White moving across from centre-back to right-back.
The tactical change helped England make the breakthrough they needed and it would be no surprise against Ivory Coast to see Southgate pick up where he left off, with Maguire likely to return to the side and Tyrone Mings also in contention to start. Stones left the camp and returned to Manchester City as a precaution after the injury picked up in the warm-up before the Switzerland victory.
Rice to return in midfield?
Southgate deployed Jordan Henderson at the base of his midfield against Switzerland but Declan Rice’s performance from the bench was a reminder of his importance to the side.
The 23-year-old brought immediate stability and control after replacing Conor Gallagher just after the hour-mark at Wembley, prompting Southgate to later describe him as a potential candidate to one day succeed Kane as captain.
“He is right among that despite his age,” Southgate said of Rice. “What I’ve seen this season is the confidence that he’s gained from his experience last summer.
“He had a huge impact on the game when he came on,” he added. “A really mature performance, strong, breaks the game up so well, but now has more confidence to drive with the ball and bring it forward as well.
“Without a doubt, he has all the attributes to be a captain. There will be others, but we are gaining the rewards of the opportunities we had to blood him so young.”
Rice could soon be joined by Gallagher in England’s midfield, if the on-loan Crystal Palace midfielder’s impressive first start was anything to go by, however Tuesday’s game could bring opportunity for Jude Bellingham and James Ward-Prowse.
Kane to continue Rooney chase?
Harry Kane moved to 49 international goals with his penalty against Switzerland, leapfrogging Gary Lineker and moving joint-second with Sir Bobby Charlton in England’s all-time scoring chart.
The striker, whose 49 England goals have come in just 68 appearances, is now only four short of Wayne Rooney’s record. He will view Tuesday’s game as another opportunity to close the gap.
The meeting with the Ivory Coast might previously have been an opportunity for Tammy Abraham, the 24-year-old having smashed 23 goals for Roma this season, but his withdrawal from the squad due to injury has left Ollie Watkins as Kane’s only competition.
Watkins will be eager to capitalise on any chance he gets having only featured as an 88th-minute substitute against Switzerland, but Kane is rarely rested and goals are not all he offers Southgate.
“There is never a camp where he looks like he doesn’t want to play,” said the England boss. “That mentality spreads through the rest of the group.”
Can Smith Rowe press his claim?
Emile Smith Rowe missed the Switzerland game after picking up a minor injury but having returned to training in recent days, the Arsenal youngster will hope to play at least some part in Tuesday’s game.
Smith Rowe has impressed Southgate since receiving his first call-up in November and duly netted his first international goal in England’s 10-0 win over San Marino.
He has continued to excel for Arsenal since then, scoring 10 goals in 28 appearances in all competitions, but his challenge is to convince Southgate he is worthy of selection ahead of others.
The England boss has a wealth of options in wide areas and attacking midfield, including Mason Mount and Phil Foden, who started against Switzerland, and Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling, who appeared from the bench. There is also his Arsenal team-mate Bukayo Saka, who was forced to leave the camp having picked up Covid-19.
Smith Rowe has already usurped the likes of Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford in Southgate’s thinking, but if he is to claim a place in England’s World Cup squad at the end of the year, he’ll need to use games like Tuesday’s to press his claim.
Zaha reunion for Southgate
Had things worked out differently, Wilfried Zaha might be turning out for England rather than Ivory Coast on Tuesday.
Zaha represented England at youth level and even played for the Three Lions’ senior side in two friendly games before switching allegiance to Ivory Coast, the country of his birth, in 2017 and going on to become a key figure for the Elephants.
Zaha’s international backstory is well known to Southgate, a former Crystal Palace player who included Zaha in his first starting line-up as England U21 manager back in 2013.
“Wilf is a good player,” he said this week. “When we had him with the Under-21s he was in the middle of a difficult spell with Manchester United and then on loan with Cardiff.
“I remember going to a hotel, Palace were playing away, and meeting with Wilf but at that point he had made his mind up. I can understand it. He had been four years without playing.”
Zaha has scored five times in 26 appearances for Ivory Coast and he is one of several Premier League players in their squad for Tuesday’s meeting at Wembley.
Manchester United’s Eric Bailly and Wolves’ Willy Boly could feature in defence, while Burnley’s Maxwel Cornet and Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe will hope to be involved in attack along with Zaha.
Sebastien Haller, who has excelled for Ajax following a difficult spell with West Ham, is expected to lead the line.
A final chance to impress Southgate?
Sky Sports News reporter Gail Davis:
On Friday, England will find out who they’ll face in this year’s World Cup. Before then, perhaps a far more significant evening awaits for Gareth Southgate and some of his players with a final friendly match and, for some, maybe a last chance to show what they are capable of in Qatar.
Southgate has stated everybody in the squad would be given game time as he looks to manage the workloads of players at such a crucial time of the season. One man who hasn’t been nearly as busy as he would have liked over the past few months is Harry Maguire.
England has become something of a sanctuary for those enduring tough times at their club, though – if Maguire is looking for some inspiration to recapture the form that led him to become the world’s most-expensive defender, he doesn’t have to look far. Southgate has nurtured an environment where players can thrive.
The England manager spent large parts of last week defending his decision to pick Jordan Pickford and then on Saturday evening the Everton man rewarded his faith with some crucial saves and “composed” performance. Luke Shaw who scored the goal to get England back in the game was also feeling the love – playing with a smile on his face has helped him raise his level.
Southgate said he never considered dropping Maguire from this squad, so I asked him how he balances continuity and loyalty with form. He admitted it’s a “difficult conundrum because we’ve got players we know have performed well in an England shirt, but there’s got to be some level of scrutiny on how people playing with their clubs, that’s got to be a factor in it. Everyone has a view on who we should and shouldn’t be picking. In the end, we need our best players possible playing at their best level to give ourselves the best possible chance of winning”.
So does Southgate still believe Maguire is one of the best players? “Well, he has got us to a World Cup semi and a Euro championship final so there’s no doubt he’s more than capable of playing at the highest level. The club are in a difficult moment, there could be a number of reasons for that. It doesn’t mean players can be poor for a couple of years and then still find their way in.” The Manchester United defender still has money in the bank but now is the time to begin repaying the faith.
So to the other Harry, who not that long ago was having to rediscover his own goalscoring form, and a different selection conundrum for Southgate. How do you manage a player on 49 goals, who is closing in on Wayne Rooney’s all-time England record and desperate to pull on an England shirt with his need to develop a plan B in attack?
“If he had his way, he would play 90 minutes of every fixture which is a brilliant quality to have, because if your captain wants to be at every camp and playing every min of every game that sets the tone for everything else,” Southgate explained. “The fact is we have a good squad, we want to keep people involved and give people opportunities. We need to see certain things across the week to see how people can play at the level.
“So we’ll make those decisions as to when he plays and when he doesn’t play. But it’s a good quality to have and that’s why he has got the number of caps he has. I always used to talk about the Gerrards and the Lampards and the Ashley Coles – they got 100 plus caps because they committed every time to coming with England and that’s what you want.”
Those other opportunities have been limited by injury. Southgate would have loved the chance to take a closer look at Tammy Abraham, who’s scored 24 goals for Roma in his first season in Italy. Ollie Watkins was given a taste of the action on Saturday, but the Aston Villa striker might play a bigger role against the Ivory Coast. There is always the possibility that Southgate could adopt the Manchester City model of playing with a false 9 given he can call on Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden but accepts without Kevin DeBruyne and Bernando Silva the outcome might not be so successful, and he values a traditional striker.
It’s the last real chance for Southgate to experiment before Qatar but it comes with a risk as he puts England’s record 21-game unbeaten run on the line, but the England boss has an even bigger target to aim for later this year.
John Stones has left the England camp and will return to Manchester City as a precaution after picking up an injury before the friendly with Switzerland on Saturday.
The Manchester City centre-half pulled out of the warm-up before the 2-1 victory at Wembley but trained with the rest of the team on Monday ahead of their second match of the March international break against Ivory Coast on Tuesday.
Stones went for a scan after training on Monday and was given the all-clear to play but the 27-year-old insists something does not feel right and will miss the fixture and return to his club.
Emile Smith Rowe missed the win over Switzerland with injury but should be available after returning to training on Sunday, while James Ward-Prowse, Tyrone Mings and Harry Maguire are likely to play a part after missing out on Saturday, and there could be more minutes for Jude Bellingham and Ollie Watkins, who came off the bench at the weekend.
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Tuesday 29th March 7:00pm
England’s March internationals will be shown live on Sky Sports.
Watch England vs Ivory Coast live on Sky Sports Football & Main Event from 7pm on Tuesday; kick-off 7.45pm.
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