England are on the brink of qualifying for Qatar 2022, with only a point now needed away to the world’s lowest-ranked side San Marino. So what must Gareth Southgate do over the next 12 months to ensure his side are in a position to build on their Euro 2020 runners-up spot?
The penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy in the summer could easily have gone England’s way and seen a first major piece of silverware won since 1966 but, next November, Southgate’s side will have to go again, when the first winter World Cup gets under way.
Here, we pick out some key areas which are likely to be foremost in the manager’s mind in the build-up to the World Cup – assuming his team round off their qualifying campaign, as expected, with a win away at San Marino on Monday…
Find a ball-playing midfielder to protect possession
Two of the country’s most impressive performers at Euro 2020 were Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice and the duo are likely to play many more matches together on the international stage. But a long-standing problem for this England group has been retaining possession through the middle of the park against the best sides.
It was a problem against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, when, after scoring early, England sat back, came under increasing pressure, were unable to keep the ball and then eventually conceded twice. And it was a problem again in July, when, again, England scored early against Italy in the Euros final before their opponents took charge.
A positive start and one-goal lead was also squandered against the Netherlands in the 2019 Nations League semi-finals. It is a recurring issue and one Southgate is clearly aware of.
Since the Euros, he has experimented with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Phil Foden in central-midfield roles, while Reece James was even given a brief cameo in the position at home to Andorra in September. Mason Mount could also be an option.
However, Jude Bellingham, whose progress with England is being carefully managed by Southgate, seems to be the more straightforward selection in the middle of the park if a ball-player is the priority – and his run out against Albania was a reminder he is very much a part of Southgate’s plans.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder – the youngster-ever player to represent England at a major tournament – will still only be 19 when the World Cup comes around, but he has already gained a lot of big-match experience and shown he has the technical skills to help his country use the ball better.
While Rice and Phillips are perhaps a little underrated with the ball at their feet, and Jordan Henderson offered a reminder of what he can bring to the engine room against Albania, there is no escaping the fact England completed under 75 per cent of their passes against Italy in July. The eventual winners were up at 89 per cent.
A technical alternative, or addition, to those more experienced figures in central midfield would be a welcome asset on occasions.
Manage the pressure of expectation – but then deliver
In the past two major competitions, England have gone from low expectations and an enjoyable ride in Russia, through to a home tournament where optimism turned to belief as notable wins – and a favourable draw – paved the way to a Wembley final. Come Qatar 2022, there will be expectation for England to be major contenders.
Those expectations are not unrealistic, either. By next November, this talented group of young players, who had such a valuable experience in the summer, will be further along in their development and go into the World Cup with plenty of major-moment experience under their belts. The side Southgate fielded against Albania, for instance, had more caps between them than any England XI since 2013.
Throw in the fact the tournament comes mid-season, before the rigours of the Premier League campaign have taken their toll, and we could even start to get carried away with 12 months still to go!
But that is the kind of feeling Southgate must, if not play down, then at least manage.
It is understood he is set to sign a two-year extension which would keep him in charge until 2024, and that will at least temper one major talking point – although events in Qatar could change those plans.
Certainly, from a World Cup perspective, there is a now-or-never narrative for him, with the draw of club football surely too strong for him to stay on beyond Euro 2024. But the same is also potentially true for some of his key senior players.
England will still have a relatively young squad – 17 of their 26 at the Euros were 25 or under – but Harry Kane will be 29 by the World Cup, Raheem Sterling turns 28 during the tournament, Jordan Henderson will be 32, Harry Maguire 29, Kyle Walker 32, Kieran Trippier 32, and John Stones 28.
This could be their best remaining chance of winning the World Cup and ending all those years of hurt and, with expectations raised, Southgate and his group cannot afford to leave the Middle East with regrets.
Get the right mix of experience and fresh faces
With the World Cup coming just a year and a half on from the delayed Euros, there are likely to be less changes to Southgate’s squad between the two tournaments than there otherwise may have been. There is also a feeling Southgate has a clear idea on his preferred XI.
The manager did not make a sub during the recent 1-1 draw in Poland, with Jordan Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Luke Shaw, Phillips, Rice, Sterling, Mount, Jack Grealish and Kane clearly among the favourites. You can add Foden and James to that list of names too.
Southgate has also regularly relied on squad players such as Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings, and the experience of Henderson, while nursing through the introductions of Bukayo Saka and Bellingham on the international stage.
But there are also a number of fringe and young players who will be desperate to show him they deserve a spot on the plane.
Mason Greenwood remains a striking omission from the national team set-up. Southgate has suggested that will change in 2022, with his current lack of involvement down to an agreement between the England boss, the player’s family and Manchester United to allow him to focus on his football at Old Trafford for now. He will surely – surely – be among the attacking options taken to Qatar if he maintains his current levels.
Then there is Emile Smith Rowe, who benefitted from injuries and illnesses to make the senior squad for the first time this month and was rewarded with a debut against Albania, while other young talents such as Curtis Jones and Conor Gallagher will feel they are in with a shout.
Joe Gomez, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ross Barkley and Rubens Loftus-Cheek have all had a taste of international football and will be hoping for a return to the fold.
Finding the right balance between the tried and tested and exciting new options will be a key task for Southgate as he weighs up who to take to the World Cup.
The blend against Albania suggests he is striving for that, with Smith Rowe’s debut complementing a starting XI which boasted 451 caps between them. This squad cannot afford to stand still.
Penalty shoot-out plan
For all the talk that England’s shoot-out win over Colombia in the 2018 World Cup put the nation’s penalty pain in the past, that old wound was pulled open again by the defeat to Italy.
We do not need another in-depth discussion about how England must get their psychology right, choose their spot and stick with it, and the importance – or not – of practice.
But perhaps Southgate will swerve the idea of sending on subs in the final minutes of the game as specialist spot-kick takers. Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and, even Mark Noble in the Premier League, have shown that is probably not the way to go…
Follow San Marino vs England – England’s final World Cup Qualifier – on Monday (kick-off 7.45pm) with our live blogs, and watch free match highlights on the Sky Sports website and app, as well as the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel.
The 2022 World Cup is taking place in Qatar in the winter months rather than the usual summer ones, due to the heat.
The tournament kicks off on Monday November 21 at the Al Bayt stadium in Al Khor with a match that will feature the host country.
The final will be played at the Lusail Stadium in Doha a week before Christmas on Sunday December 18.
The Premier League has confirmed key dates for the 2022/23 campaign, with the season adjusted to accommodate a World Cup that takes place in the middle of the domestic calendar.
The season will start a week earlier than normal on August 6 2022, with 16 matchdays taking place up to the weekend of November 12/13, before the tournament kicks off on November 21.
The Premier League will resume on Boxing Day following the World Cup final, which takes place on December 18.
The final match round of the 2022/23 season will be played on May 28 2023.