This is our choice rather than Gareth Southgate’s, but why the hell would he not listen? England’s manager will pick a 3-4-3 formation, so we had better at least go with that…
Goalkeeper: Jordan Pickford
It might seem entirely counter-productive to call up four goalkeepers to establish a hierarchy and then not pick the most likely to be first choice in Russia (Jack Butland), but there’s something about Pickford that makes you think he could be a star. Plus there’s no doubt that the Everton goalkeeper’s distribution is better than Butland’s, and that makes a massive difference in this formation.
Centre-back: John Stones
An odd season at club level, with a magnificent autumn followed by a rotten winter. Injury has been followed by iffy form, and there are now questions about whether Stones even gets into Manchester City’s first team. Still, England are not as good as City and Stones is a ball-playing central defender. He starts, and we’re fine with that.
Centre-back: Harry Maguire
The lack of established options in central defence – a massive contrast with England World Cup teams of the last 25 years – means that Southgate has been able to call upon players in form from outside the top six, and the bold move to leave out Gary Cahill reiterates that. Yet Maguire is in a group of one, performing well at club level (sorry Michael Keane) and having already impressed for England (sorry Alfie Mawson).
Barring any disaster, Maguire starts against Tunisia on June 18. Given his lack of experience in a three-man central defence (although he did do it a few times with Hull last season under Marco Silva), he should start every game until then too.
Centre-back: Eric Dier
The most important player in England’s team? Quite possibly, as much as that makes us itch. Still, we much prefer Dier in central defence to central midfield, and playing him in the middle of the three-man defence makes him multi-functional.
When England have possession, Dier steps up into a protective midfield role, allowing those in front of him to push on and also avoiding a large gap to open between defence and midfield that can be exploited by a quick counter-attack. When England are without the ball, Dier will play as a central defender, and his aerial ability will be useful. The ball-playing abilities have never been in doubt.
Right wing-back: Kyle Walker
The first name on the England teamsheet. In no position on the pitch is there less competition for the first choice, and given that Walker is in the top five (three?) in the world for his position that’s something we’re pretty happy with. Only Harry Kane can say the same.
Which also makes Southgate’s decision to try 3-4-3, a version of which is used by seven of England’s first-choice team at club level, all the more logical. Hang on, we are suddenly feeling a pang of optimism here.
Left wing-back: Danny Rose
Would have picked him over Ryan Bertrand anyway, but Bertrand’s withdrawal from the squad makes that decision entirely non-controversial. If you select a 3-4-3 formation, the onus is on the two wing-backs to surge forward and provide the attacking width that busies full-backs and pulls central midfielders out of position. Their attacking capabilities actually become more important than their defensive ones.
Bertrand is an excellent defender, but he is closer to left-back than wing-back and only twice in the last two seasons has he played as one at club level. With Rose lacking minutes at Tottenham but with a history of wing-backery (yeah, deal with it), we have to give him the match minutes that enable him to flourish in Russia.
Central midfielder: Jordan Henderson
Every time England play, we do our assessment of each player and say virtually the same thing about Henderson. To paraphrase: ‘Still yet to play really well for England in X caps, to the extent that we’re left wondering what he does.’
What he does now is be a fit regulation (ie not attacking) central midfielder in the England squad who is playing regularly for a club going places, which makes him bloody unique. The hope is that Jurgen Klopp’s insistence to Henderson that he passes the ball forward more makes the difference.
Central midfielder: Jack Wilshere
Not just in from the cold, but sat on a thick rug warming his toes on the fire while having toasted marshmallows fed to him. With Adam Lallana and Alex-Oxlade-Chamberlain only fitting the definition at a push, this England squad contains four actual central midfielders, and you can’t see either of Lewis Cook or Jake Livermore – please – starting. Harry Winks, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chalobah are all injured.
Wilshere offers something that no other English central midfielder can, and that’s not just faux-patriotic bullishness. He can drive forward with the ball and play the pass at the right time.
Attacking midfielder: Dele Alli
The most difficult choice of all, but actually made more simple when you consider the shape of Southgate’s team. It’s all very well calling for Marcus Rashford to start, but England have to find a place for him. Picking him and Sterling would be to play two wide forwards in a system in which the wing-backs have responsibility to provide the width, thus leaving a huge gap in the centre of the pitch.
Alli has not played brilliantly this season for Tottenham, but he is closer to the creative force England need in midfield than Rashford, and can also tuck back into central midfield if the situation demands.
Attacking midfielder: Raheem Sterling
And so Rashford goes up against Sterling, and loses again. Part due to current form, part due to Sterling playing in this system for Manchester City, part due to Sterling and Alli being comfortable swapping positions behind the striker and part due to Sterling’s transformation as a player this season.
Were Sterling still a winger, with responsibility to stay close to the touchline and create, we would doubt his worth in this team in favour of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana or Jesse Lingard. But only Mohamed Salah has touched the ball more times in the opposition penalty area than Sterling in the Premier League this season, and Salah has played almost 300 more minutes.
England’s biggest problem (okay, one of many problems) against Iceland was a tendency to shoot from distance when things weren’t going our way, a surefire way to lead to more frustration. Of Sterling’s 15 league goals this season, six have come in the six-yard box and all but one from inside the penalty area. This is the Raheem Sterling that can truly help England, the unlikeliest of penalty-box poachers that Pep Guardiola created.
Striker: Jamie Vardy
And so Rashford goes up against Vardy, and loses again. He can be an excellent impact substitute, and should take that as a compliment rather than insult.
I’m of the opinion that the best way for England to succeed in Russia is to not have a first team, but a team selected with the best chance of winning each game on its own merit. That should involve Harry Kane starting against Tunisia and Panama, when England will have the ball for long periods and thus feasibly hope to provide Kane with the service he needs to score goals, but we also have to accept that England do not have a Christian Eriksen-type creator. That will limit Kane’s impact; we saw as much at Euro 2016.
Against better teams, Vardy might well be the better option. He hassles and harries defenders and forces mistakes, but he also scores goals in a very different way to Kane. Kane scores in volumes because he shoots in volumes, whereas Vardy boasts a better shot conversion rate. In fact, of the 22 players to have scored eight or more times in the Premier League this season, Vardy’s is the best while Kane’s is the second worst. Against opposition where we might only have two or three half-chances, Vardy might well work better. Taking that as ‘oh you think Vardy is better than Kane’ or ‘yeah, leave out your best striker’ misses the point.
Which all makes Kane’s temporary absence potentially good news for England, if it allows him to have a rest and Vardy to play (and hopefully impress) for England against sides closer in quality to Belgium and Colombia (England’s most likely last-16 opponent) than Panama and Tunisia.
Planet Sport Quizzes:
Test your knowledge on the Miami Open (Tennis365)
Test your Australian Grand Prix knowledge (Planet F1)