Following the final fixtures of the domestic season last weekend, we’re now on the home stretch for the 2018 World Cup. But before Gareth Southgate’s side square up with the likes of Panama and Belgium in the Group Stages, England must ready themselves for two warm-up friendlies that could have a decisive impact on how they perform in Russia. Use them effectively to learn more about this young team and the Three Lions could defy their pre-World Cup critics; waste the opportunity and England will enter the tournament under-prepared.
Nigeria are first up, facing England at Wembley on Saturday, so here’s three crucial questions Southgate needs the Three Lions’ clash with the Super Eagles to answer…
Southgate seems intent on making his three-at-the-back formation, a cross between 3-4-3 and 3-5-2, England’s primary World Cup formation. But having only really used it thus far against traditionally strong teams – namely Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Brazil – there’s not a mountain of evidence to suggest it works against lesser opposition. In fact, the only time Southgate’s fielded his side with a three-man defence against such opponents was in the scrappy and unconvincing 1-0 win over Lithuania in qualifying, which required a penalty from Harry Kane.
The significance of that shouldn’t be downplayed; the earliest England will play a high-quality team is in their last Group Stage game against Belgium on the 28th of June, but if they fail to take at least two points from their opening two clashes with Tunisia and Panama because the formation doesn’t work, the Three Lions’ World Cup bid will be over by the time they meet the Red Devils. Nigeria, ranked 43rd in the world by FIFA, represent a significant and suitable test.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek clearly has a fan in Southgate and with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ruled out of the World Cup through injury, there is an opening in England’s midfield. The problem, though, is that there’s already some strong competition to fill it – while Jesse Lingard excelled in an advanced midfield role during the last batch of friendlies, it seems inevitable that Dele Alli will be brought back into the side after sitting out the win over the Netherlands and the draw with Italy.
But there’s no doubting Loftus-Cheek’s natural ability and he seems perfectly suited for not only that role but also the energetic, athletic philosophy of this England team; he’s got the dynamism to stretch teams on the counter-attack, as he did for Crystal Palace all of last season, and the quality to create goals. The question though, is whether he’s ready to start for England over two players who have far greater experience and more proven track records at both club and international level. Perhaps a runout against Nigeria will give Southgate a clearer idea of whether a 22-year-old who missed a big chunk of last term through injury has what it takes to make the step up.
On paper, Kane and Jamie Vardy make something close to the perfect partnership. While the Tottenham man can drop deep, hold up the ball and create chances, the Leicester icon’s strengths lay in clinical finishing and stretching the opposition defence by making relentless, surging runs behind it. That should make them a feared strikeforce for pretty much any opposition in the world, but there haven’t been too many games in which England have used both in the same starting XI.
And while Southgate seems pretty set on having Raheem Sterling as a support striker to Kane, Vardy represents the kind of Plan B that could make all the difference at the World Cup, especially in the latter stages of games. So perhaps Saturday’s friendly can be a testing ground for the best way to get both into the side; whether that’s making a shock switch to a 4-4-2, using Vardy from out wide or modifying the dimensions of Southgate’s three-at-the-back setup.