On Thursday night, we will learn the identity of the last four qualifiers for next summer’s European Championships as the play-off finals are played.
Knowing the complete line-up of 24 teams will hopefully only serve to focus minds in the England camp.
Gareth Southgate’s side play the Republic of Ireland in a Wembley friendly at the same time and the England manager will be only too aware that opportunities are running out to get everything right before the Euros.
Harry Maguire was sent off as England lost to Denmark in their last match a month ago
Gareth Southgate himself was given a ticking off as tempers flared during the Denmark loss
It leaves England with it all to do to qualify for the UEFA Nations League finals ahead of matches away to Belgium and against Iceland, which could be on neutral territory
After the Ireland game, England complete their UEFA Nations League campaign with a visit to Belgium and a ‘home’ fixture with Iceland that could yet be played on neutral territory somewhere in Europe because of Covid-19 restrictions.
The truth is that Southgate still has plenty of issues to resolve in terms of team selection and tactics if England are to do well next summer.
This latest triple-header, the final internationals of what has been a difficult year, will hopefully provide some of the answers as the countdown to Euro 2020 continues.
Who will be the three at the back?
Southgate appears to be set on a return to the three-at-the-back formation – or a slight variation on it – that served England well at the 2018 World Cup.
They reached the semi-finals out in Russia and no doubt Southgate would use that as justification to return to a 3-4-3 ahead of the Euros, despite the 4-3-3 serving them well in the interim.
The initial return to three-at-the-back, away to Denmark in September, yielded a solid defensive performance but an uninspiring attacking one in a goalless draw.
A 3-4-2-1 system worked well in the friendly win over Wales and the Nations League victory over Belgium last month.
Conor Coady has enjoyed his first tastes of international football and scored against Wales
Joe Gomez is stepping up for Liverpool but injury will now prevent him playing for England
This week’s games
England vs Republic of Ireland
Friendly, Wembley, 8pm, ITV
Belgium vs England
UEFA Nations League, Leuven, 7.45pm, Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Premier League
England vs Iceland
UEFA Nations League, venue TBC, 7.45pm, Sky Sports Main Event
And no doubt it would have done likewise in the defeat to Denmark if not for Harry Maguire’s 31st-minute sending off that prompted a reshuffle.
Southgate will stick with the formation this month to ensure his players are fully accustomed to it by the time next summer rolls around.
The identity of the three centre-backs deployed will be the interesting thing. Maguire is suspended for the Belgium game and Joe Gomez suffered a serious injury in training this week, so there is great chance there for Conor Coady of Wolves or Tyrone Mings of Aston Villa to stake their claims.
Coady hasn’t put a foot wrong in his three England appearances so far – he even scored against Wales – and he might be the man to help keep Belgium’s talented attack at bay.
Obviously Maguire’s early season problems have been well documented but it’s hard to see him not being part of the three come next summer.
Gomez had an excellent chance to make himself a regular as he shoulders more responsibility at Liverpool with Virgil van Dijk out injured. But now Gomez has been ruled out with a serious injury, his chances to prove himself as a reliable starter for England are dwindling.
Tottenham’s Eric Dier is now very much a centre back on a full-time basis and is in good form, while Kyle Walker is doing well for Manchester City and is the obvious candidate to play on the right side of the three.
The friendly with Ireland is a good time for experimentation with perhaps a start for Coady, who may keep his place with Maguire absent for Belgium.
If England lose to Belgium, the Iceland game is a dead rubber so Southgate may get the chance to try a different trio once again.
Eric Dier challenges Romelu Lukaku of Belgium during last month’s Nations League victory
Can anybody dislodge Pickford?
Southgate has already made it clear ahead of these games that Jordan Pickford remains England’s undisputed No 1.
‘We have some competition for places but I would say that there is nobody who I think is challenging seriously at the moment to push him out of that position,’ Southgate said this week.
That’s bad news for Nick Pope and Dean Henderson then, who seem destined to be carrying the water bottles next summer.
Earlier this season, Southgate countered suggestions Pickford had become unreliable following a series of errors for Everton by arguing he hadn’t made any mistakes for his country.
Jordan Pickford rushing out of his goal was a factor in Kyle Walker conceding a penalty
But Southgate has made clear that Everton keeper Pickford will remain England’s No 1 keeper
But in the Denmark game last month, it was Pickford rushing off his line with no hope of claiming the ball that panicked Walker into conceding a penalty.
Despite that error, and the ones for Everton this season, Southgate described Pickford’s England performances as ‘excellent’ and so he looks set to start at least the two Nations League games.
It’s likely Pope or Henderson will play against Ireland but they’re seemingly fighting for scraps in the long-term.
An abundance of choice at right back
Southgate has a tough choice to make at right back as Euro 2020 approaches.
England seem to have an embarrassment of riches in the position and the game against Denmark last month saw three right backs on the field – Reece James, Walker and Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left back.
Southgate played Kieran Tripper at right wing back against Wales, Alexander-Arnold against Belgium and James against Denmark.
It won’t be such an open audition this time. Alexander-Arnold has withdrawn from the squad with injury while James is suspended for the two Nations League games following his red card for giving the referee a volley of abuse at the full-time whistle against Denmark.
Reece James played very well in England’s game with Denmark as he took the right-back spot
But Chelsea man James then ruined his night by getting sent off for dissent at the final whistle
James was still called up which suggests he will start against Ireland but the absence of Alexander-Arnold means opportunity knocks for Trippier and Maitland-Niles. Walker may also be favoured there instead of in the back three.
‘It’s an area of the pitch where we are blessed,’ Southgate said last week, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka missing out this time.
You’d say Alexander-Arnold is first choice at the moment on the strength of his club performances but James can’t be too far behind after playing well against Denmark.
Maitland-Niles was the man sacrificed for another centre back after Maguire’s sending off in the Denmark game so he’ll feel he deserves another chance to impress.
Kieran Trippier (left) could have an opportunity to stake his claim for the right-back position
How to get the midfield balance right
Choosing the correct central midfield pair in the 3-4-3 will be absolutely crucial for Southgate. It will set the tone for the way he wants England to play.
In that goalless draw in Copenhagen in September, his choice of Declan Rice alongside Kalvin Phillips was too conservative and England were desperately lacking in spark until Jack Grealish came on for Phillips on 76 minutes.
Against Wales, it was Phillips and Harry Winks but, crucially, Grealish started further forward and England were much better, albeit against under-strength opponents.
In the Belgium game, Southgate started Rice alongside Jordan Henderson, a ploy probably needed to contain Kevin De Bruyne and Co.
Declan Rice in action during the Nations League game against Denmark last month
Against Denmark, it was Rice and Phillips again with Mason Mount further on but the sending off forced England onto the defensive.
England are crying out for a ball-playing midfielder who can pass through opposition lines and Phil Foden best fits the bill.
He was absent last month after his shenanigans in Iceland but has been recalled this time and hopefully we’ll see him trusted to play. Likewise, Grealish, who is enjoying his season with Villa and has looked sharp with England too.
Perhaps Frank Lampard’s decision to start playing Mount as a No 8 – where he has been praised for his performances – rather than in the forward line might help solve Southgate’s issue here too.
Jack Grealish has started the season impressively and will be hoping for more England games
Phil Foden is back in the England squad following the incident in Iceland back in September
In Belgium there will be a need for a more defensive screening midfielder to protect the back three so Rice or Winks are bound to play.
Southgate’s other choice of midfielder will say much about how much England are bothered about the Nations League this time.
Realistically, they will have to win against both Belgium and Iceland to qualify for the finals. If they go with Foden, Grealish or Mount in there, they have a chance.
Hopefully 17-year-old Jude Bellingham will get the chance to make his debut in England’s midfield as well. He was promoted from the under-21 squad after James Ward-Prowse withdrew through injury.
Southgate speaks with Jude Bellingham after the 17-year-old was promoted to the seniors
Getting the best out of Sancho
According to the German media, Jadon Sancho’s form for Borussia Dortmund is a ‘crisis’ at the moment.
Just two goals and four assists in nine appearances for his club so far this campaign is apparently giving Dortmund cause for concern.
Ruhr 24 said Sancho is ‘currently going through a form of depression’ and has gone from ‘high-flyer to problem child.’
Jadon Sancho’s dip in form for Dortmund has been labelled a ‘crisis’ by the German press
BILD published an article looking at the England star’s performances, claiming it is a ‘crisis’
Southgate will hope a few days with England and a change of scenery will do Sancho some good as he will be key to their Euro 2020 chances.
The 20-year-old was in hot water last month when he went to Tammy Abraham’s birthday party along with Ben Chilwell, breaching the ‘rule of six.’
The trio missed the Wales game but Sancho wasn’t dropped from the squad and came off the bench against both Belgium and Denmark.
We can expect Sancho to feature in at least one of the games, with Marcus Rashford struggling with an injury. He should certainly play more than the 18 minutes he got last month.
Southgate will hope some good England displays will boost Sancho’s confidence this week
Who’s the back-up to Kane?
Harry Kane’s sensational form for Tottenham in the early part of the season – 13 goals and 10 assists in 14 matches – can only be good news for England.
As captain and principal goalscorer, Kane is obviously going to be of critical importance once the Euros come round.
But it’s important England have back-up options up front if Kane has an off-day in a crucial match.
Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham (four goals this season) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin of Everton (11 goals) are also in the squad this time.
England can’t be too reliant on their captain and main goalscorer Harry Kane at the Euros
Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin has enjoyed an impressive opening to the season
One of them will surely start in the friendly with Ireland and there may be opportunities off the bench in the two Nations League games if England are struggling.
With those two, plus injured Southampton striker Danny Ings, Newcastle’s Callum Wilson and perhaps Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins as well, England do not appear to be short of choice.