England played their final fixture before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, drawing 3-3 with Germany following a frenzied second half at Wembley.
The six-goal thriller followed a 1-0 loss to Italy at the San Siro on Friday as Gareth Southgate’s side made it six games without a win, but how did the two games impact the players who might – and might not – make the cut for his 26-man squad for Qatar?
Maguire selection backfires
Harry Maguire was shaky, if not glaringly poor, in England’s 1-0 loss to Italy on Friday but his horror show against Germany three days later underlined why so many are baffled by Southgate’s loyalty to him. Is his position in this team untenable?
The centre-back, deployed on the left of England’s back three against Germany, as he was against Italy, was largely untroubled for the first 50 minutes at Wembley but it all unravelled spectacularly after that.
He was at fault for Germany’s opening goal twice over, first gifting the ball straight to Jamal Musiala, then fouling him to concede the penalty. Not long afterwards, he could be seen losing possession in Germany’s half in the build-up to their second.
The errors will do nothing for his already fragile confidence and there is little prospect of Maguire rebuilding it back at Manchester United, where he has lost his place in the starting line-up and, it seems, lost his status within the dressing room.
England fans are desperate for a changing of the guard in defence but Southgate has displayed little appetite for it.
His solution to the recent defensive issues has been to reinstate the 28-year-old Eric Dier. He passed up the opportunity to give Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori any minutes at all against Italy and Germany. Ben White, meanwhile, didn’t even make the squad.
Instead, his faith in Maguire has been unwavering.
So, while that calamitous display against Germany might make Maguire’s position untenable to many fans, it is unlikely to change much to the man picking the team. Recent evidence suggests it is a risk that could haunt him.
Trent’s non-selection symbolic of Southgate’s England tenure
The continued non-selection of Liverpool’s dynamic right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold, has largely characterised Southgate’s national reign, with many of the England manager’s biggest critics using the thorny issue as a stick to beat him with.
Now it appears as though Alexander-Arnold’s latest axing – the 23-year-old was left out of the squad to face Germany in England’s final game before the World Cup – has made clear Southgate’s intentions to leave the player at home this winter.
It should not really come as a surprise, however, with Alexander-Arnold having appeared in just 17 internationals under Southgate since making his debut in a World Cup warm-up with Costa Rica in June 2018.
Meanwhile, the full-back has featured in only 62 minutes of England’s disastrous Nations League campaign, with his ever-cautious manager instead preferring the greater defensive solidity provided by either Reece James or Kieran Trippier.
Trent’s supporters, though, will point to a player who created more chances in the Premier League than anyone else last season, and all from right-back, but it seems Southgate made up his mind on this one some time ago.
Either way, you can be sure his omission for Qatar 2022 will be one of the first things labelled against Southgate unless he brings home the World Cup in December.
Brilliant Bellingham to play key role
Jude Bellingham is not 20 until the end of June next year. At an age many youngsters have not even made their professional debut, the 19-year-old midfielder has already played 144 games at club level and won 17 senior caps for his country.
Amid England’s recent struggles and growing concerns ahead of this winter’s World Cup, Bellingham has been one of their brightest sparks. After starting back-to-back games against Italy and Germany, the teenager is surely now at the forefront of Southgate’s plans.
Despite a dismal defeat at the San Siro on Friday which saw England relegated in the Nations League, Bellingham was a rare shining light and continued to impress at Wembley three days later.
His cool, calm and collected performances in midfield continue to highlight why Borussia Dortmund want a reported €150m (£135m) if they are to part ways with their most valuable asset next summer. Even that price is unlikely to put off any realistic suitors.
Since arriving in the Bundesliga from Birmingham in 2020, Bellingham has seen his shirt number retired at his former club, been in a Bundesliga team of the season, scored in the Champions League, and featured at a major international tournament.
There have only been four World Cups during his lifetime. Expect him to play a key role at the fifth.
Eric Dier, back from the brink
A lack of form and injury issues to key personnel in Southgate’s defence has played into Eric Dier’s hands.
The centre-back earned the last of his 45 caps in November 2020 but a resurgence in form as the base of Antonio Conte’s back three at Tottenham has catapulted Dier back into the England picture. He’s now not only in the picture but he is front and centre after two assured performances as the central figure of Southgate’s defence. It would now be a surprise if his name wasn’t on the teamsheet for the opening game vs Iran.
Dier is no novice on the big stage either. Southgate knows he can trust him in the pressure cooker of a major tournament. This is a player that stepped up and scored the match-winning penalty in England’s first penalty shootout victory at a World Cup when edging past Colombia in 2018.
Dier played six matches at that tournament and started all of England’s matches at Euro 2016, scoring a free-kick in the opening match against Russia. The versatile Spurs player saw his role diminish in significance during the ensuing years but his latest return shows he is not only a player with considerable quality but one that possesses the mettle required for international level. He has the reliability factor, something England desperately need in a defensive unit that is currently prone to making mistakes.
Bowen’s World Cup bubble burst
England entered their final game before this winter’s World Cup having not scored a goal in open play for 450 minutes, but Southgate decided the time for experimentation was over. The audition period is up and tournament mentality must kick in.
In trimming his 28-man squad down to 23 for the Germany clash, you suspect Jarrod Bowen might well have been among the first names to be dispensed with.
Unlike the omission of Alexander-Arnold – perceived in some quarters as defeatist – the West Ham forward was given a second chance following an inauspicious debut against Hungary in June.
But Bowen, so infectious to David Moyes’ flickering Champions League hopes last term, is the least known to Southgate among his wealth of forwards buzzing behind Harry Kane.
“I compromised certain decisions internally, and you don’t win if you compromise,” the England manager said on the eve of the Italy clash.
Bowen was an unused substitute, and returns to West Ham having played zero minutes to go with his zero league goals and assists for his club this term.
Whatever happens in Qatar, Southgate’s identity as England manager is set. The Trent Conundrum of the past few years will always divide onlookers but as engrained on the tombstone of his tenure will be his relationship with creative players.
Often described as a luxury, Jack Grealish and James Maddison fall into this category. Southgate clearly feels he can only afford space for one, but Bowen at his best is far more than that – consistently among West Ham’s top performers for distance covered and top speed.
It just so happens that his form has regressed as spectacularly as it rose to prominence for a side marooned in the Premier League’s bottom three. The hope was that St George’s Park could rekindle the Bowen of 2021/22, but with England’s confidence dented, this wasn’t the environment for his own struggles not to bleed onto the international stage.
With three additional spots open to Southgate in his 26-man final squad, it looks increasingly unlikely that Bowen will emerge as the joker in his pack.
Rashford’s prospects boosted
Marcus Rashford was not available to face Italy and Germany due to what he described as an “untimely” muscular injury but Gareth Southgate’s comments after the squad announcement made it clear the 24-year-old is firmly in his thoughts.
“He is a player we know well, so if he can perform at a high level in the next few weeks, he of course will be under consideration,” he said.
Rashford has not played for England since coming off the bench and fatefully missing his penalty during the European Championship final defeat to Italy last year but an eye-catching return to form at Manchester United has brightened the outlook for him.
So too has the state of England’s attack.
Until their late flurry of goals against Germany, they had gone nine hours without scoring from open play. An in-form Rashford, scorer of three goals in six games for Manchester United this season, might be the man to provide the firepower they have so often lacked lately.
He certainly looks a better option right now than Bowen, who didn’t make it off the bench against Italy and wasn’t even in the squad against Germany having registered no goals or assists in seven games for a struggling West Ham side this season.
Rashford has other factors in his favour too.
For a start, his experience. He is well known to Southgate having made 46 caps for England, scoring 12 times. Then, there is the fact he can play as a central striker as well as on the flanks. That versatility could prove useful to Southgate in Qatar.
Rashford might just have boosted his World Cup prospects this week without even kicking a ball.