They’re nice headaches to have, but they’re still headaches. When your second XI plays very well, it creates competition for places. Woo…
Do we want the natural wing-back?
Ashley Young is probably the player who has improved the most during Jose Mourinho’s tenure at Manchester United, but he has played as a regulation left-back at Old Trafford. Having switched formation in order to accommodate two wing-backs, it would therefore seem a little perverse for Gareth Southgate to not pick natural wing-backs.
Young was chosen for the game against Nigeria, and we assumed that it was his position to lose, but as the natural left-footer Danny Rose offers width, overlapping runs and crosses without having to stop, turn back, pop it onto his right foot and deliver. The only doubts were about Rose’s fitness, but he came through unscathed and looked sharp.
Young is the oldest member of England’s squad and fully deserves his place on the plane, but Southgate has repeatedly insisted that his team will look to play attacking, fluent football. Rose fits that vision better than Young.
Hunch: Rose starts the first game.
Has Marcus Rashford done enough to start?
It was all so simple, and all so set in stone. Raheem Sterling would start off Harry Kane, with two creative midfielders behind them and a more defensive pivot holding fort. And that might still be exactly what happens. Southgate is a sensible and calm guy, unlikely to lurch from one direction to another. Plan A might remain as Plan A.
But nobody improved their standing in the squad on Thursday evening as much as Rashford. He scored a fabulous goal, but also played with an insouciance and freedom that has been sadly lacking from his recent club performances. Plenty of Manchester United fans have been happy to blame the player rather than system for those travails; this offered an alternative explanation.
The worst Rashford will be is England’s super-sub, but did Thursday even elevate him beyond Sterling for a starting spot?
Hunch: Sterling holds on to his place, I think. But it’s lovely to have options.
Who is the midfield pivot?
“It’s a key decision, but that’s management,” said Southgate. “They’re the tough calls. I’d be amazed if the two of them aren’t important figures during the tournament for us, but there is clearly the possibility they might not both play in every match. We have to look at that because I think we will only want to play with one pivot.”
And so Thursday’s friendly instantly became even more intriguing. The suspicion is that Eric Dier – England’s best player at Euro 2016, for what that’s worth – will miss out to Jordan Henderson in the race to be England’s holding midfielder. Henderson’s forward passing has certainly improved under Jurgen Klopp, even if I still have kittens about him being swarmed by a German or Brazilian midfield in the quarter-finals.
But the rogue option is Fabian Delph, who was superb against Costa Rica and has learned Pep Guardiola’s pressing ways over the course of the last two seasons. We know Southgate likes Delph, but enough to make him his go-to central pivot?
Hunch: Henderson starts against Panama and Tunisia, but don’t be surprised to see added steel against Belgium.
It’s two out of three in front of them
“I think they just want to go and have a crack at the tournament – and that’s my view as well,” said Southgate before the Costa Rica game. We have got to attack it. It’s wrong to say they have no fear, because any sportsman going into a big competition has those moments of: ‘what might happen?’. But we want them to play in a brave way, we want them to express the things that they do with their clubs.”
Wanting to attack is not quite the same as picking a team overloaded with attacking players, but coupled with the England manager’s comments on Dier and Henderson it appears that two of England’s three midfielders will have licence to go forward.
The automatic assumption was that Southgate’s optimism created spaces for both Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to start as attacking midfielders, but the performance of Ruben Loftus-Cheek on Thursday evening may put doubts in his manager’s mind. Southgate watched on as Loftus-Cheek dictated the tempo of the game from central midfield, linking up superbly with Rashford and creating space for his teammate. He looks the part.
The leftfield option would be to pick Rashford as an attacking midfielder with the responsibility to roam and drop deep as he did against Costa Rica, thus fitting Kane, Sterling and him in the same side with Alli or Lingard and Henderson or Dier, but that then feels a little too attacking. This is tough.
Hunch: Loftus-Cheek starts from the bench, with Alli and Lingard starting ahead of the holding player.
Which three central defenders get the nod?
If three rather than two central defenders should make decisions over team selection easier, it really doesn’t feel that way. The transformation of Kyle Walker from right wing-back to centre-back to guaranteed starter in that position has left several others jostling for position.
We still think that John Stones starts whatever, even if his ability on the ball is slightly less vital with Walker also in the central defensive three. Which would leave Gary Cahill, Phil Jones and Harry Maguire all fighting over one position.
Jones is being omitted first, and the tough decision is to leave Maguire on the bench and Cahill in as the experienced leader. But then Cahill doesn’t usually play on the left of the three. This really is the hardest of the lot.
Hunch: Walker, Stones and Cahill, but I doubt myself even as I type.
Predicted (let’s face it, guessed) team to face Tunisia: Pickford, Stones, Walker, Cahill, Trippier, Rose, Henderson, Alli, Lingard, Sterling, Kane.