We are only four weeks away from the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and one team who will be staking a claim to the trophy in Qatar is England. Since replacing Sam Allardyce as manager in September 2016, Gareth Southgate has led the England squad to their first World Cup semifinal since 1990, with the Three Lions beating Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden and losing to Croatia in extra time. Three years later, he led them to their first international final since 1966, with England beating Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Ukraine and Denmark before losing to Italy in Wembley.
From the 26 players who made up England’s Euro 2020 squad, none have retired from international duty, whilst various players like Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka have merely gone up another level over the past 15 months. However, there are plenty of England players who could miss out on the tournament in Qatar due to injury.
England have arguably the strongest depth at right back of any country in world football, but two other their best options — Reece James and Kyle Walker — are in a race against time to be fit for Qatar. Nevertheless, Southgate is able to choose from Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, and Ben White — who has shined at the unnatural right back position for Arsenal since being moved out of central defense this season.
Another fitness doubt is Kalvin Phillips. After leading Leeds to promotion in 2019/20 under Marcelo Bielsa, Kalvin became the third player in the 21st century to represent the England national team without making a top-flight appearance after Jack Butland and Wilfried Zaha. 10 months after making his debut, Kalvin emerged as a vital performer in Southgate’s double pivot alongside Declan Rice, with his performances seeing him win England’s 2020–21 Men’s Player of the Year.
Since joining Manchester City for an initial fee of £42 million, Kalvin came on for the final five minutes of City’s opening Premier League match, a 2-0 defeat to West Ham, before being used as a late substitute for their first two Champions League matches. However, he has not made a single appearance since September 14, and his slow recovery from a shoulder injury could leave a gaping hole in midfield.
Despite these injuries, England have a fairly straightforward path as they look to avoid their fate of 2014 and advance to the knockout round. The Three Lions take on Iran — who have failed to make it out of the group stage in any of the five World Cups they have participated in — before playing the United States, who missed out on qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Their final group stage match will see them take on Wales, a team that is playing its second World Cup and its first since 1958.
There are some tough decisions for Southgate to make as he looks to solidify a 26-man squad for Qatar. Whilst Dean Henderson has impressed between the sticks since joining Nottingham Forest on loan, expect Jordan Pickford to start in goal with Aaron Ramsdale and Nick Pope being the backup options ahead of Henderson and Sam Johnstone.
Trippier, Trent and White will be competing for the right back spot alongside James and Walker, whilst Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw will likely make it as the left backs, with Kyle Walker-Peters, Tyrick Mitchell, James Justin and Matt Targett missing out.
Far more doubts exist in central defense — Harry Maguire has struggled for form and fitness this season under Erik ten Hag, whilst Tyrone Mings has also looked shambolic at times for Aston Villa. It remains to be seen if Southgate ignores their form issues and calls them up for Qatar, but between Everton duo James Tarkowski and Conor Coady, John Stones, Joe Gomez, Eric Dier and Chris Smalling, as well as Milan’s Fikayo Tomori and Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi, it’s safe to say Southgate isn’t short on options.
Rice is all but guaranteed to start in midfield alongside Jude Bellingham, whilst James Ward-Prowse, James Maddison, Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount, Conor Gallagher, Eberechi Eze, Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be looking to stake their claim in an increasingly crowded center of the pitch.
Perhaps the strongest crop of talent is in the final third. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling look set to start in the front three alongside Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford or Bukayo Saka, whilst Ivan Toney, Ollie Watkins, Tammy Abraham, Callum Wilson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin offer strong competition at center forward. As for the flanks, Jack Grealish, Emile Smith Rowe, Jadon Sancho, Jack Harrison, Harvey Barnes, Jarrod Bowen and Anthony Gordon will be looking to make it to their first-ever World Cup.
Overall, England have more than enough talent to end a 56-year drought for a major trophy and win the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and they also have enough depth to ward off an injury crisis. With Harry Kane (29), Raheem Sterling (27), John Stones (28), Kyle Walker (32) and various other key players entering the final years of their prime, it’s now or never for England.
‘Close but no cigar’ is simply not good enough anymore after six years under Gareth Southgate — perhaps a victim of his own success, perhaps a victim of his squad’s unparalleled depth and quality — the expectation for England is to win in Qatar. Anything less will be a disappointment.
By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Ashton – AMA / Michael Regan – The FA / Soccrates Images – Getty Images