Gareth Southgate names his England squad for the upcoming friendlies with the Netherlands and Italy on Thursday. With the World Cup less than three months away, which uncapped players are edging closer towards the final tournament 23?
Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham)
The wildcard. The teenager. The venture into the unknown. Gareth Southgate has proven himself a far greater risk-taker than he has ever been given credit for in his short time as England manager. Eleven players have made their international debuts during the 47-year-old’s tenure, from Tammy Abraham to Jack Cork. England’s beige manager has at least splashed some colour on the walls.
Ryan Sessegnon might well be a step too far. There is plenty to be said for choosing in-form players for major tournaments, and only three players have scored more Championship goals this season than the Fulham winger. But it would place an immense amount of pressure on the shoulders of a 17-year-old, who should expect his spending habits and choice of automobile to be scrutinised and criticised alongside his actual performances. It is quite the burden.
It would represent a remarkable rise for Sessegnon, currently in the midst of only his second full season as a professional. He was the joint-top tournament goalscorer as England lifted the European Under-19s Championship last summer; a promotion to the seniors is inevitable, but perhaps not so soon.
Odds to make the 2018 World Cup squad: 5/1
While Sessegnon did not manage to net in the final of the U19 Euros, one of his peers went one further. With his winning strike against Venezuela last June, Dominic Calvert-Lewin became only the third Englishman to ever score in a World Cup final.
Far from being held culpable for an underwhelming season at club level, Calvert-Lewin has emerged as one of precious few positives for Everton this season. He has followed up his U20 World Cup heroics with some solid if unspectacular displays for the Toffees, scoring eight goals and assisting six in 23 starts in all competitions. He has also perfected his diving technique, which could come in handy in Russia.
Speculation of a call-up for Calvert-Lewin on Thursday has intensified over the past week, and Southgate would be justified in handing the 20-year-old an opportunity to impress against the Netherlands and Italy. The forward linked up with the senior squad during the last batch of friendlies in November, but only due to withdrawals. He has earned another chance in his own right, and the onus will be on him to take it with both hands.
Odds to make the 2018 World Cup squad: 10/1
“If he can improve a lot during these months – I am sure he will continue improving – you never know. He’s not now in the squad, but if they have a couple of problems, maybe he could be there.”
Since Rafael Benitez issued the challenge to his captain, Jamaal Lascelles has made nine Newcastle appearances. The relegation battlers have lost just three of those games: to Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. If the 24-year-old is not already in Southgate’s plans in some way, the England manager is a fool.
Newcastle have conceded three goals or more in five Premier League games this season; the only one of those heavy defeats that featured Lascelles came away at City in January. Perhaps he knew precisely what he was doing when he publicly questioned Chris Smalling and Phil Jones after inspiring Newcastle to a clean sheet against Manchester United last month. The best English centre-half in the Premier League on current form deserves a shot.
Odds to make the 2018 World Cup squad: 9/1
The most problematic area of the England squad is undoubtedly the heart of the defence. Southgate put Smalling on a quick wash cycle before hanging him out to dry in November, Jones has been complicit in United’s uncertainty at the back, Gary Cahill is not a regular starter for Chelsea, Michael Keane has been poor for Everton, and John Stones is failing to win back his Manchester City place. From the last squad, only Harry Maguire has continued his momentum. The door has been left ajar for an in-form centre-half to recklessly slide through…before protesting his innocence.
“For me in terms of the way we’d want to play from the back, I think three at the back is a better option,” said Southgate in October, and in truth it would be difficult to choose that triptych right now with the scarcity of options. But Swansea’s switch to a three-man central defence has thrust Alfie Mawson into the equation. Swansea have conceded as many goals as Liverpool (11) in ten games since Carlos Carvalhal’s appointment as manager, and fewer than Chelsea (13). Only the current top seven have kept more Premier League clean sheets than the Welsh side this season.
Mawson has been integral to their defensive improvement. Manager described player as “one of the best central defenders in the Premier League” last month, and the 24-year-old will at the very least be granted a chance if Southgate stays true to his word on running an England meritocracy.
Odds to make the 2018 World Cup squad: 12/1
It is difficult to reward personal excellence when individual achievements are rooted in the performance of the collective. To choose only one Burnley player worthy of acclaim for their displays this season would be to overlook the importance of the team effort. There is a danger in taking a player out of said team and putting them into an entirely different environment and system; just ask Michael Keane. It is a fish out of water scenario, only the fish are well-learned in the art of the low block and are used to being out of possession more often than not.
Those who doubted whether Burnley’s defensive improvement was a team effort this season were soon silenced when Kevin Long slotted in seamlessly at centre-half last year. The Clarets have conceded eight goals in the nine games the 27-year-old has started this season.
Long’s shots came first when Ben Mee was ruled out of December fixtures against Watford and Stoke, both of which Burnley duly won 1-0 with Long partnering James Tarkowski. It was only when the latter was first injured then suspended himself that Burnley’s form drastically deteriorated. The 25-year-old missed seven of their 11 winless Premier League games, a run which ended upon his return to the starting line-up against Everton earlier this month.
There might be no ‘i’ in ‘team’, but Southgate will have kept his eyes trained on Tarkowski, who is the integral cog in this Burnley defence. Questions were asked when Michael Keane was sold for £25m with no replacement; the Clarets knew they already had the answer. England might wonder whether the same could be true for them as their defensive conundrum continues.
Odds to make the 2018 World Cup squad: 5/1
Odds to make the 2018 World Cup squad: Evens