With the World Cup now a distant memory, qualification for Euro 2020 is upon us. England kick off their campaign at home to the Czech Republic on Friday, before travelling to Montenegro on Monday. Here are five of the biggest questions over England’s international break…
1. Will we see Callum Hudson-Odoi in action?
The Chelsea attacker hasn’t been out of the headlines this year.
In January, Bayern’s well publicised £35m pursuit of the 18-year-old led him to hand in a transfer request, which was swiftly rejected. As the transfer window slammed shut, Hudson-Odoi had hoped to force his way into Maurizio Sarri’s starting XI but despite Chelsea’s struggles, he has only featured for 119 minutes in the league, all as a substitute.
That hasn’t been enough to deter Gareth Southgate, who made headlines himself by promoting Hudson-Odoi into the senior squad after Luke Shaw withdrew through injury.
After the successful integration of fellow youngster Jadon Sancho, England fans will be eager to witness Hudson-Odoi in action, to see whether he justifies the hype. A place in the starting line up might be out of the question but it seems unlikely he would have been taken away from the U21s if Southgate had no plans so use him, so expect a cameo from the bench.
Hudson-Odoi isn’t the only new face in the squad, however, nor the most controversial. Which begs the question…
2. What about Declan Rice?
Rice infuriated Irish fans and pundits alike when he declared his allegiance for England last month, having previously turned out for the Republic in three senior friendlies.
The West Ham midfielder represented Ireland across five age groups but was granted permission to switch his international allegiance to England by FIFA, as he was born in London.
It isn’t the first time England have been involved in such a switch, with Wilfried Zaha appearing in two friendlies under Roy Hodgson before deciding to commit to the Ivory Coast. However, Rice’s decision would seem to be a far more bitter pill to swallow, such was his importance to the Irish.
To rub salt in the wounds, he subsequently won the Irish Young Player Of The Year award, with the voting having taken place before he switched allegiance. Ouch! Suffice to say he didn’t attend the ceremony.
3. Will Southgate keep faith in Jordan Pickford?
The Everton goalkeeper has endured a mixed season domestically, following his World Cup heroics for England last summer.
He remains one of the most divisive players in the league, switching between hero and villain in the blink of an eye and never was that more evident than in Everton’s recent defeat to Newcastle.
As Everton nursed a narrow lead, Pickford flapped at an innocuous cross before rugby tackling Solomon Rondon to give away a penalty, which he then saved.
His banter with the Newcastle fans gave the impression that he would feel as comfortable in the crowd as he is on the pitch but England fans are craving a calmer presence in goal, following the tub-thumping, chest-beating years of Joe Hart.
In the aftermath of the Newcastle match there were calls for Southgate to drop Pickford from England’s upcoming fixtures but an outstanding performance in Everton’s 2-0 victory over Chelsea may have earnt him a stay of execution.
4. Which formation will England play?
Southgate’s utilised a 3-5-2 formation to great effect in the World Cup as England reached the semi-final stage. The Nations League saw a gradual shift to a 4-3-3 system and, with England also reaching the semi-finals of that competition, Southgate has a dilemma.
The England manager will be keen for his side to retain a level of tactical flexibility to ward off predictability as well as providing himself with options for different opposition. As such, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that he will revert to the formation that worked so well for him in Russia.
Either way, England’s attacking threat will largely depend on their success at the wide areas of the pitch, which begs the question…
5. Which full backs will Southgate choose?
Even accounting for Luke Shaw’s withdrawal from the squad, Southgate has decisions to make on both sides of his defence.
Resisting pressure to call up Crystal Palace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Southgate must choose between Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier at right back.
It seems probable that Walker and Alexander-Arnold will go head to head for the starting spot, just as they are competing against one another for the Premier League title. Yet Trippier has seemingly earnt a degree of loyalty from Southgate after a fantastic World Cup. Will experience, potential or loyalty win out?
On the other side of the pitch, Shaw’s absence leaves Danny Rose and Ben Chilwell to fight it out at left back. Whilst Chilwell has undoubted ability and strong positional sense, Rose has electric pace and vast experience which could cause problems for the Czech Republic.
Whatever Southgate decides, they are, as football managers often say, nice problems to have.