England friendlies leave Southgate with selection headache

A late video assistant referee (VAR) decision at Wembley left its mark on an otherwise uneventful international break for Gareth Southgate’s England – which was the players’ final chance to impress as part of an England set up before Southgate selects his provisional World Cup squad.

Although England showed glimpses of promise over the two fixtures, particularly through star man Raheem Sterling, it is clear that there is still room for improvement in the England camp prior to the World Cup.

The Three Lions played two average games of football, firstly beating a below-par Netherlands side 1-0 in Amsterdam, courtesy of Jesse Lingard, before a 1-1 draw with only a marginally better Italy side at home.

Jamie Vardy had put England ahead in the first half, thanks to a well-executed finish one-on-one with Gianluigi Donnarumma. However, a controversial penalty decision upon consultation with VAR was converted with composure, marring an otherwise satisfactory debut for Burnley’s James Tarkowski – who impeded Italy’s Chiesa for the penalty.

The England manager blasted the use of VAR for the penalty incident, highlighting that the foul was not “clear and obvious” – which he notes is the argument for the introduction of VAR in the first place and that the Italy player was “going down anyway”.

It may be unfair to fully criticise England’s performances – Southgate used the fixtures to experiment, giving fringe players a chance to impress as well as fielding more experienced players in new positions.

Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland were given a game each to stake their claims as Joe Hart’s long-term successor between the sticks. Considering that they only had 7 caps between them prior to the break, this was certainly a big ask.

Collectively, they made few mistakes, but admittedly they had very little to do. Jordan Pickford, therefore, managed to record a second clean sheet in as many England appearances, although Jack Butland was unfortunate to concede the well-taken penalty.

Kyle Walker was also in unchartered territory, being instructed to play as a centre back in both matches. Nonetheless, it paid off, as Walker played a mature role as part of a back three.

Conversely, John Stones – who most would assume is a certainty to start at centre back in Russia – made several glaring errors when defending against Italy, foolishly adopting his ball-playing defender role in dangerous positions.

It is now up to Southgate to select his provisional 33-man squad before May 14th – 23 of which will be flying to Russia in June. Whilst there are several places certainly taken, the England manager has a lot to consider. 

By Rob Kirk