England produced an impressive performance in front of vociferous Elland Road and beat Costa Rica 2-0 in their final warm-up match ahead of World Cup 2018 in Russia on Thursday night.
Gareth Southgate’s 3-5-2 has shown signs that it may crackle into life since March and it came to life for an entire 90 minutes against a side who made the quarter-finals of the competition in Brazil four years ago.
England are now ten games unbeaten and are floating into this summer’s showpiece on a now-familiar wave of optimism but there are still numerous questions for Southgate to answer ahead of their opening Group G game against Tunisia on June 18.
That is largely down to the strength of his squad; the Three Lions lack the superstar quality of yesteryear but have a competitive 23-man party and the options in multiple positions are very evenly-matched so we’ve taken a closer look at some of the burning decisions facing Southgate…
If the Costa Rica game, where Southgate made ten changes, was a final audition for a World Cup starting place, Rashford could not have done any more to force his way into the first team.
The Manchester United man fizzed about throughout, starting centrally but popping up on both flanks to inject pace and invention. He capped his night’s work with a stunning dipping strike on 13 minutes to open the scoring.
With captain Harry Kane’s place assured and Raheem Sterling coming off the back of the season of his life, Rashford is still an outside bet to start against Tunisia – unless Southgate veers away from 3-5-2, but that’s another conversation – but his performance was so good that it must have made Southgate think twice.
To get further than they managed four years ago, England must navigate past Tunisia and Panama in their opening two Group G matches.
Both sides are low on quality and adventure, likely to sit deep, content with a 0-0 draw on a monumental occasion for their respective nations so Southgate has to find a masterplan to unlock the door.
That looks to involve fielding just the one holding midfield player to begin with, which has created much talk about a straight fight between Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier, two men who have both captained England under Southgate.
However, the game against Costa Rica also saw Fabian Delph remind the nation of the energy and panache he can offer from the engine room with a performance that could well have turned the fight to be the chosen pivot into a three-way battle.
The uncertainty over Dier’s starting place in midfield raises the possibility of the Tottenham man moving into the back three to play in his favoured central defensive role.
The Kyle Walker experiment at right centre-half has seemingly gone well enough to convince Southgate to sacrifice his scampering runs at right wing-back and, no matter how many times Glenn Hoddle says he would like to see John Stones given licence to dribble out of defence by playing on the sides of the back three, the former Everton man will be at the heart of the trio.
That leaves one space remaining for Dier – who has seldom played at the back for England – Gary Cahill, Phil Jones or Harry Maguire, who has been the man in possession for much of the season, to take up.
Nobody has shone to the extent that they are the outstanding candidate and it is unlikely that Southgate is certain about who his back three will be with Tunisia just ten days away.
Former Premier League winner Ashley Young has a better season than his direct competitor Danny Rose, but it was the £27m-rated Tottenham ace who produced the more impressive performance in the World Cup warm-ups.
Young offers superior crossing ability but has been an awkward fit at Manchester United this season and it would be foolish for Southgate to overlook a more talented and comfortable option like Rose, who impressed during his hometown Elland Road audition on the left of defence.
Rose has been incredibly candid about the issues he has faced this season and – while his struggles render football genuinely insignificant – he looks to be back to his best but Southgate still has a major decision to make.