When England walk out into the Volgograd Arena, on the evening of June 18th, their 2018 World Cup campaign will have begun.
Their opponents – Tunisia; hardly a rollover, but a must-win game nonetheless. On the 16th May, Gareth Southgate announced the 23 men that will bear the country’s weight on their shoulders, and this is, for me, England’s strongest first 11 to kick off the group stage.
Goalkeeper: Jack Butland
Nick Pope has been fantastic this season, but the lack of experience means he is unlikely to start in Russia. The two main protagonists Jack Butland (7) and Jordan Pickford (2) may only have only 9 caps between them but have several more years of top-flight game time in their favour. With a 38.2% long ball accuracy (2.9% higher than Pickford) and double the average sweeps per game (0.8), the Stoke man, who also has a higher save success rate of 69.6% (compared to Pickford’s 65.6%) is, for me, the better option.
Left Centre-Back: John Stones
In my opinion, the best centre-back England have, John Stones goes into the World-cup off the back of winning the (albeit slightly worse) domestic double. He may only have 16 starts in the Premier League, but played over half of City’s Champions League campaign, and has been assured and confident when deployed in Guardiola’s title-winning system.
Central Centre-Back: Eric Dier
Personally, I would prefer to have the former Sporting Lisbon employee in midfield, however, the lack of defensive options has led to his inclusion in the back line. With a fantastic passing range (demonstrated by his assist for Dele’s goal vs Chelsea recently) and the ability to play the sweeping role, similar to that of Franz Beckenbauer, the Spurs man will slide into the team easily.
Right Centre-Back: Harry Maguire
Maguire has performed fantastically for Leicester this season, occupying a top 10 position in many defensive stats, including the 3rd most tackles in the league. However, Southgate has limited his options greatly – Walker isn’t a centre-back, whilst Phil Jones and Gary Cahill don’t inspire confidence. Chris Smalling was perhaps a better option than his United teammate, whilst Tarkowski (who is on standby), Lascelles and Dunk can all brand themselves unlucky to not be in the squad.
Left Wing-Back: Ashley Young
A few years ago, England were spoilt for full-backs; Rose and Baines were in top form, whilst Shaw and Bertrand showed signs of a bright future. Fast forward to 2018, and 32-year-old former winger Ashley Young is our first-choice man on the left flank. I would have personally taken and started the totally excluded Ryan Bertrand, whilst Danny Rose, probably our best left back, has spent the season injured and has barely played at all – hence the choice of Young.
Right Wing-Back: Kyle Walker
The second name on the team sheet for me. One of the fastest full-backs in the world has developed into one of the best under Guardiola’s guidance at City this season. Kieran Trippier provides solid back-up, but the City man has the second most assists from a defender in the league and is the undisputed right flanker for England.
Defensive Midfield: Jordan Henderson
I will operate Southgate’s 3-4-1-2 system that he used for both the Netherlands and Italy friendlies. The Liverpool skipper is only here because there aren’t many other options for this role. Admittedly, he has had a good season for the Reds, captaining them to 4th in the league and a Champions League final, but he is absolutely no comparison to Busquets, Makelele or Kante.
Left Centre-Midfield: Jesse Lingard
One of the bright sparks of an ultimately disappointing Manchester United season, Lingard has become a key figure for club and country. He has been directly involved in 13 goals for the Red Devils, as well as scoring his first England goal in the 1-0 win against the Netherlands. As Sir Alex predicted, the 25-year-old was a late bloomer but has peaked at exactly the right time to compete for a World Cup starting place.
Right Centre-Midfield: Dele Alli
Alongside Lingard, Dele will run the team’s creative engine. He has assisted 4 of Kane’s league goals this season, and their link-up will be crucial to the attack. One of the most talented players in the squad, the 22-year-old’s short fuse could become an issue, but Southgate will look to channel his anger into creativity. With the exclusion of Wilshere and Shelvey, the creative burden falls heavily on Dele and Lingard’s shoulders.
Left Striker: Raheem Sterling
With many questions still revolving around his finishing ability, Sterling has done his best to shut the critics up this season. With 18 goals and 11 assists, he has begun to show why City valued him so highly. Despite being only 23, he already has 37 senior caps and two major international tournaments under his belt, and hopefully, his pace and agility will get the better of defenders in Russia.
Right Striker: Harry Kane
Amidst the brilliance of Mo Salah, Harry Kane has once again had a scarily prolific season. With 30 goals to his name in the league, he has nailed down his place as one of the best strikers in the world. Euro 2016 was a summer to forget for the Londoner, who failed to impress in his debut tournament, but he is much more prepared, and in even better form, for the World Cup this time around.
What changes would you make? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image credit SkySports