Despite a raft of top Premier League players, Southgate has failed to come up with a system and formation which provides a coherent game plan. During qualification, England rarely looked like a powerhouse of world football and relied on late, injury-time winners on more than one occasion. 2-0 home wins against group minnows Lithuania and Malta tell the story of a side that failed to play with attacking verve and often struggled to break down opposition defences.
With the retirement of Wayne Rooney from Three Lions duty, the last of England’s ‘Golden Generation’ has left the international stage and a new group of players is emerging. Tottenham stars Harry Kane and Dele Alli lead the new kids on the block, and Southgate has plenty of exciting attacking options in Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Jamie Vardy (Leicester) and Danny Welbeck (Arsenal). His challenge, however, is to merge these players into a successful attacking unit – something he has failed to achieve in his reign thus far.
England’s excellent defensive record in the group could also be misleading due to the quality of opposition. Central defensive midfield lacks strength in depth with only Eric Dier (Tottenham) and Jordan Henderson (Liverpool) in genuine contention for starting spots, while centre defence is lacking in experience. Chelsea’s Gary Cahill is England’s most-capped defender, while Manchester City’s John Stones has emerged as first-choice despite only winning 23 caps in his short career so far. Southgate’s experiments with Liverpool’s Joe Gomez and Leicester’s Harry Maguire are a cause for concern – not because they lack quality, but because it demonstrates the uncertainty about the heart of England’s defence. Lesser sides in qualifying will not expose any weakness or inexperience but the top sides in the world most certainly will.
Only three players called up to the squad in the last twelve months have more than 50 caps – Joe Hart, Gary Cahill and Jermaine Defoe – and of those, only Cahill has been included in Southgate’s final 23 for Russia.