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Maguire, Bellingham, Alexander-Arnold: Where do England stand ahead of World Cup?

Maguire, Bellingham, Alexander-Arnold: Where do England stand ahead of World Cup?

England‘s World Cup preparations – at least in terms of official matches – are now over.

The next time Gareth Southgate‘s side take to the field will be at the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar against Iran on November 21, the opening match of their 2022 World Cup campaign.

For much of Southgate’s tenure, the Three Lions looked on the right path to potential glory in the first ever winter World Cup, reaching the semi-finals in 2018 before going one better to make it to the final of Euro 2020 on home soil last year.

However, a dismal UEFA Nations League campaign has raised more questions than answers and will send England into the World Cup on the worst run of form they have ever suffered heading into a major tournament.

Monday night’s hectic 3-3 draw with Germany showed glimpses of why fans can still justify some sort of optimism, but also exactly why many will be worried as the juxtaposition of Southgate’s current crop was laid out within 45 manic minutes at Wembley.

It is now six games without a win for England – their longest winless streak for more than 29 years – while they went a whopping 565 minutes without scoring a goal from open play before their sudden flurry late on against Germany.

England manager Gareth Southgate on September 23, 2022© Reuters

There is no shying away from the fact that those stats are worrying, and certainly not good enough for a squad which figures from Transfermarkt suggest is worth a staggering £1.2bn.

In reality, it is probably more than that; Transfermarkt has Harry Kane, Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham as England’s joint-most valuable players, worth £81m each, but you would think it would take fees well in excess of £100m to prise each of that trio away from their respective clubs.

The likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Declan Rice could also command nine-figure sums, while Jack Grealish – the darling of the Euros but whose star has dimmed somewhat since his switch to Manchester City – has already broken the £100m mark.

The talent is undoubtedly there, then; up front they have a man on the brink of becoming England’s leading goalscorer of all time, and in support of him they have five or six of the best players aged 23 or younger in world football – Bellingham, Foden, Alexander-Arnold, Rice, Reece James and Bukayo Saka.

So, why are England going into the World Cup in such poor form? Southgate and many of the players have urged fans and members of the media to judge them based on their performance in Qatar, but until then they have not given people much reason to be confident of success so far this calendar year.

The shackles must come off

Mason Mount celebrates scoring for England against Germany on September 26, 2022© Reuters

Serious lessons to learn from a barmy Nations League dead-rubber against Germany may be few and far between, but the biggest takeaway must be that England perform a lot better when they feel they have nothing to lose.

Southgate is blessed with some incredible attacking talent, yet one of the main criticisms of his tenure has been that he has been too reluctant to unleash them to their full potential.

A safety-first, do-not-lose approach has become more and more frustrating for supporters over time, with many putting their Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy down to Southgate’s refusal to go for the jugular after England had taken such an early lead through Luke Shaw.

It is perhaps unfair to compare managers in completely different circumstances, but nonetheless it is difficult to imagine Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp being so reserved with the same set of players, and it is noticeable that those who do play under those two managerial masters at club level struggle to replicate such lofty form on the international stage.

Reproducing club form for England is by no means a new problem – it is an issue which plagued the ‘Golden Generation’ of Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard et al – but this time around it feels like the system is holding back some of their best players, rather than club loyalties being to blame.

For all of the criticism being aimed at Southgate, it should also not be forgotten that he has achieved more success as England boss than anyone other than Sir Alf Ramsey, reaching one semi-final and one final at major tournaments.

However, he is naturally defensive-minded, when the majority of the players in his squad are not. If the England boss chooses to let his dangerous attackers fly, every country at the World Cup in Qatar would fear them, and with good reason.

Harry Maguire cannot start

England's Harry Maguire shakes hands with manager Gareth Southgate after the match on September 26, 2022© Reuters

Loyalty is an admirable trait all too lacking in modern football. However, blind loyalty can be harmful, and Southgate’s insistence that Harry Maguire remains a first-choice defender for England came back to bite his side again on Monday night.

The Manchester United man, who quickly lost his place at club level under new boss Erik ten Hag, was at fault for Germany’s opening two goals at Wembley as his weaknesses were once again exposed.

A dreadful piece of control was then compounded by a clumsy challenge to give away the penalty for the opener, before a gung-ho charge upfield saw him robbed of possession high up the pitch as Germany ruthlessly punished him being way out of position.

While those were the two most notable mistakes due to resulting in goals, there were other shaky moments which were not similarly punished too.

Maguire has bounced back from adversity in the past, and the England fans continue to sing his name, although that seems more and more down to it being an enjoyable song to sing rather than serious support or backing for his position in the team.

Southgate has said that he is willing to stake his reputation on Maguire coming good, having not been let down by the centre-back in an England shirt so far, but Monday’s performance did let him down and it is increasingly difficult to see how the manager can stick with a player whose chances of playing regularly at Manchester United in the buildup to the World Cup look slim.

It would still not be a surprise to see Maguire line up against Iran on November 21 – Southgate has already stuck his flag to the defender’s mast and looks unwilling to budge – and that becomes even more baffling with the likes of Fikayo Tomori playing week-in, week out for Italian champions AC Milan.

The curious case of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fikayo Tomori

Fikayo Tomori pictured in AC Milan gear on January 23, 2021© Reuters

Speaking of Tomori, the 24-year-old was brutally snubbed by Southgate during this international break, alongside Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Both were called up but not handed a single minute of action in either game, and were omitted from the matchday squad entirely against Germany to suggest that they have work to do to even make the World Cup squad, yet alone work their way into Southgate’s starting XI, where many believe they should be.

It is difficult to see what more work they could do, though; Tomori helped AC Milan to the Serie A title last season and remains a regular for the Italian champions both domestically and the Champions League.

Comparing his statistics to England’s other centre-back options from the current squad – Maguire, John Stones, Eric Dier and Kyle Walker – shows that Tomori comes out on top for successful tackles, pressing, blocks and interceptions, yet he was not even given the chance to impress on his home ground against players he faces regularly during the defeat to Italy last week.

It must be disheartening and exasperating for a player to feel that his manager is choosing favouritism over form, as on the latter qualifying factor there is no doubt that Tomori should be starting for his country.

Alexander-Arnold’s plight is a little more complicated given that England are blessed with extraordinary depth at right-back, and there is no doubt that James, Kieran Trippier and Walker are all more than capable of starting for their country.

There is also the fact that Alexander-Arnold does not have much experience playing as wing-back compared to James and Trippier in particular, which appears to hold plenty of weight for Southgate.

Trent Alexander-Arnold in action for Liverpool on September 13, 2022© Reuters

The main criticism of Alexander-Arnold surrounds his defensive capabilities, which are often harshly judged on the relatively rare occasion he is exposed at club level by Liverpool’s risky high line, but Klopp knows that his attacking output far outweighs any defensive lapses he may have.

On paper, a wing-back role should suit him perfectly, with more license to attack and slightly less emphasis on defending, yet his omission from the squad against Germany means that he has only featured in five of England’s last 31 games in the buildup to the World Cup, denying him even a chance to prove that he can succeed in the system.

England have had success without the Liverpool man, who played no part in their Euro 2020 campaign due to injury, but his lack of chances under Southgate have been an insult to a player many regard as one of the best in the world in his position.

Legendary former right-backs Gary Neville and Cafu have tipped Alexander-Arnold to become one of the best ever in the position; Klopp has made him a mainstay of a team that has won every trophy available to them in recent years; he is a Ballon d’Or nominee; yet for Southgate he is not deemed good enough – or at least not considered to be right – for even a dead-rubber against Germany.

Such a decision is even more puzzlesome considering England’s difficulty in scoring from open play this calendar year, failing to do so in the Nations League outside of that 12 minutes of madness on Monday when they netted three times, including one from the spot.

Alexander-Arnold registered 19 assists for Liverpool last season. He has broken the Premier League record for the most assists by a defender in a single season. Having a poacher like Kane on the end of his deliveries would surely be worth multiple goals a year for England if they played together whenever possible.

Even if the Liverpool man is not a guaranteed starter for Southgate given his other options in that area of the field, going to the World Cup without him would deprive England of arguably the most creative attacking weapon at their disposal.

Jude Bellingham is the real deal

England's Jude Bellingham pictured on September 26, 2022© Reuters

OK, so this is not exactly news, but Jude Bellingham’s star rose even further during the international break – one of few England players to come out of the games with credit.

With each passing star showing it seems as though the clamour for his signature next summer intensifies, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and Liverpool reportedly among the teams jostling for pole position.

England are blessed to be able to say that he is theirs, and always will be. At just 19 years old he has already established himself as a lynchpin of this England side, and from the current squad he is arguably the second name on the teamsheet behind only captain Kane.

The Borussia Dortmund man has raced to 17 caps – already the same number as Alexander-Arnold, incidentally – and looks entirely comfortable on the biggest stage.

Never shy to demand the ball and carry it, Bellingham has played more minutes than any other teenager in Europe’s top-five leagues this season and his stats rank up there with the best both defensively and in attack.

As sad as it will be when the legendary duo of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo finally hang up their boots, the next generation looks like it is in good hands, and Bellingham looks set to lead that generation alongside the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Erling Braut Haaland, Phil Foden, Pedri and others.

A regular scorer in the Champions League, a player who can put in a tackle and then carry the ball forward or release an attack, Bellingham looks certain to play a major role for England at this winter’s World Cup, especially if he is allowed to play with his natural freedom.

England are not the only team with problems

England manager Gareth Southgate with Luke Shaw and Jude Bellingham on September 26, 2022© Reuters

There is no getting around the fact that England’s Nations League campaign was poor, and they could have no complaints at suffering the ignominy of relegation into League B.

However, looking ahead to the World Cup there are perhaps some signs of optimism to be taken from the form of some of the other teams who would usually be regarded among the favourites.

Monday’s opponents Germany are one of those; like England they finished below Italy and Hungary – two teams that failed to even qualify for the World Cup – in Nations League Group A3.

Hansi Flick‘s side will be bidding for a record-equalling fifth World Cup crown in Qatar, but will go into the winter having won just one of their last seven games, including a home defeat to Hungary this month.

Die Mannschaft do have a friendly against Oman scheduled before getting their campaign underway against Japan on November 23, but regardless of what happens there, they will be going into the tournament in less-than-ideal form.

Germany boss Hansi Flick on September 20, 2022© Reuters

Defending champions France have also endured a dire Nations League campaign, losing three and winning just one of their six outings from a group which, on paper at least, looked far easier than they made it out to be.

Defeat to Denmark in their final game of the campaign meant that they only avoided relegation by virtue of Austria losing at home to Croatia in the group’s other game.

Spain were also beaten at home by Switzerland during this international break, so England are not alone in Europe when it comes to high-profile teams going through sticky patches.

That said, the challenge from South America looks set to be fierce, with Lionel Messi’s Argentina unbeaten in 34 games stretching back more than three years and Brazil unbeaten in 14, including wins in each of their last six.

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