England travel to the Amsterdam Arena on Friday evening for a friendly with the Netherlands that will give Gareth Southgate the chance to test his options ahead of the World Cup in Russia. The Three Lions gaffer has picked a squad that balances out the needs to experiment and further familiarise this group of players, but Oranje certainly won’t make easy opponents – having failed to qualify for the coming tournament, Ronald Koeman will look to open a new, more positive chapter in Dutch football’s underwhelming modern history against England.
But will it prove to be another uneventful, low-scoring friendly or an England performance that breeds vital confidence in the team ahead of what looks set to be a challenging World Cup campaign? Football FanCast’s England loving duo, editor-in-chief James Jones and Sam Preston, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the 7.45pm kickoff…
As already alluded to, the coming friendlies will see Southgate balance out priorities. On the one hand, he’ll hope this England side improve their cohesiveness as a unit; on the other, he’ll want to give debutants Nick Pope, James Tarkowski and Alfie Mawson the chance to prove themselves and consider alternative game-plans for the World Cup.
What will Soutgate want to get out of these friendles?
James: “I assume he’ll mostly be looking for two encouraging performances and first and foremost, an answer to life without Harry Kane. There is a real danger we may have to do without Kane for a bit in Russia and with his ankle injury there’s still no guarantee he’ll be 100% fit and in full flow by the time the first game kicks off. If Southgate can find a formula that works without the world’s best striker, he’ll no doubt feel very confident ahead of the tournament.”
Sam: “He’ll want to see once and for all what is the right system to take to Russia. He has preferred a 3-4-2-1 but that formation has slightly gone out of fashion this season. This is his last chance to experiment before the serious business begins. He has to finish this international break certain about which system to use at the World Cup. Also, there are players who have come in from the cold such as Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young and he’ll want to see how they’ve slotted back in.”
Jordan Pickford looks set to start against the Netherlands but England’s goalkeeping berth is well and truly up for grabs. He and Jack Butland have conceded over 100 Premier League goals between them this season yet with Joe Hart struggling to even make the starting XI at West Ham, they represent the most promising options breaking through. Then there’s Nick Pope – he’s never represented England at any level before, but has enjoyed a fantastic season with Burnley.
Who do you see as England’s best option for the World Cup?
Sam: “This is such a tough call as I wouldn’t mind if any of the four goalkeepers in the squad started the first game of the World Cup, but by the same token, none of them could complain if they were left at home. I’d go for Pickford, though. He is on better form than Butland, Hart still isn’t playing regularly and while I have been incredibly impressed with Pope this season, starting him in the World Cup would be a major risk.”
James: “Either Pickford or Pope for me. Lots of people still think Butland is the best we’ve got but he has been part of the Premier League’s worst defence this season. Pope has been the best performing English goalkeeper so far this term and he deserves his chance at the highest level. Pickford hasn’t lived up to his Everton price-tag this season but he’s still a quality keeper, so either of the two would be good selections in my eyes.”
The other key selection dilemma is how to actually set up this England side. Previous games suggest Southgate wants to use a three-man defence at some point during the World Cup, but it’s a far cry from the England norm and not too many players in the squad will be hugely experienced using that system. Then again, there has been a clear revival in three-man defences over the last few years, which appears to be a reaction to the widespread adoption of 4-2-3-1.
Does a back three or a back four suit England better, and which players should be involved?
James: “I’ve been encouraged by Southgate’s willingness to try a back three and it has looked promising in recent games, so I think he should perservere with that and try to find a way of it working. We have the players available for it work so I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t change to a back four, unless he’s forced into it. I’d have John Stones, Harry Maguire and Eric Dier at the back to start with.”
Sam: “I like the fact that Southgate has done something different with England, using the back three, and it has worked reasonably well in previous friendlies. I’d stick with it, and it allows the front three players complete freedom to wreak havoc. That hasn’t happened too often with England in the past. My back three would be Eric Dier, John Stones and Harry Maguire. That means if it’s not working out, Dier could step into midfield and we go to four at the back.”
The Netherlands are undoubtedly amid one of their lowest lows, both domestically and at international level. But the Dutch remain a footballing nation of great natural pedigree, and even amid such an underwhelming era they continue to produce promising talents.
Who do you see as Oranje’s danger-man?
Sam: “It’s fair to say that this isn’t a classic Dutch side and that’s reflected in the fact that they won’t be in Russia this summer. The one danger-man I’d pick out is Memphis Depay, who has rediscovered some form and confidence at Lyon. There is a danger that England fans and players may underestimate him because he was so poor for Manchester United but I think he’ll have a point to prove to an English audience.”
James: “I’d be wary of Justin Kluivert – he’s arguably Holland’s most promising young player and he has looked very impressive for Ajax this season. His pace and technical ability could cause us problems, particularly given we don’t have a lot of pace in the back three and the likes of John Stones is prone to a mistake here and there.”
And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions:
Sam: “Although the appeal of international football has waned in recent years, I do feel quietly confident about England at the moment. Southgate has impressed me and I think we have a very good chance of beating a very underwhelming Dutch side for the first time since 1996. I’m going for 2-0.”
James: “I fancy England to win this one even in the absence of Harry Kane as Alli, Sterling and Rashford will prove too much. 2-1 England and we all start to get excited all over again…”