In this unique season with a World Cup shoehorned into the middle of it, the club performances of England‘s stars will be scrutinised like never before.
The Premier League is underway and it’s a straight sprint now until the Three Lions kick-off their Qatar campaign against Iran on November 21. Nobody will want to be left behind.
Gareth Southgate has shown himself to be pretty loyal to the core of an England side that has reached a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final under his stewardship.
England manager Gareth Southgate already faces a number of concerns with the countdown to the Qatar World Cup in November already very much underway
How England lined up ahead of their latest game, the 4-0 UEFA Nations League defeat by Hungary at Molineux. Back row, left to right: Kyle Walker, Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips, Marc Guehi, Aaron Ramsdale, John Stones. Front row, left to right: Conor Gallagher, Bukayo Saka, Reece James, Harry Kane, Jarrod Bowen.
But this will be a build-up to a major tournament like never before. Instead of a whole season’s worth of evaluations, Southgate will have to make some snap decisions before the squad deadline of October 13.
It means even regular starters under Southgate will be under intense pressure to prove they’re in form and ready to go straight into World Cup action just over a week after the Premier League pauses.
And already there are a number of players sweating over their place in Southgate’s plans as we explore here.
Maguire must have been a worried man watching Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez form a solid partnership as Manchester United beat Liverpool on Monday night.
Erik ten Hag had benched his captain following a shaky start to the season and United were dramatically improved as a result.
Maguire peering out from the dug-out could become a familiar sight if Ten Hag sticks with his convictions but, as Sportsmail reported on Wednesday, he is determined to stay and fight for his place despite interest from Chelsea.
It hasn’t been the greatest start to the season for Manchester United duo Luke Shaw (left) and Harry Maguire (right), who are regulars in Southgate’s England line-up
He may get some game time in the Europa League with the whole group stage crammed in prior to the World Cup, but it’ll be a major concern for Southgate, who has stuck by Maguire through thick and thin.
In an ideal world, Southgate will want to pair Maguire and John Stones together in Qatar but if the United man isn’t playing regularly he may have to reconsider.
While Maguire rarely lets England down and was exceptional during their Euro 2020 run last year, his slump in form over the last 12 months has set alarm bells ringing.
Southgate undoubtedly has his trusted lieutenants but ultimately they have to be playing regular Premier League football to be at the required sharpness for tournament football.
Shaw and Maguire watch on from the bench as United defeated Liverpool 2-1 on Monday
It’s a similar situation with Shaw, who was also dropped to the bench for United’s 2-1 win on Monday night. Sat next to Maguire, they both watched on wistfully as United played really well.
Ten Hag looks to be favouring Tyrell Malacia at left-back with the summer arrival replacing a lacklustre Shaw at half-time with United four down to Brentford and then starting against Liverpool.
Again, this poses a problem for Southgate because Shaw established himself as the first-choice at left-back or left wing-back during the Euros ahead of Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell.
Shaw’s injury absence towards the end of last season offered James Justin of Leicester an opportunity but he is more naturally a right-back and so is Kieran Trippier, who switched across during June’s Nations League games.
Shaw certainly gets the nod over Chilwell for England when they’re both fit but if the Chelsea man gets more action than Shaw in the weeks ahead of the World Cup, perhaps that pecking order will be reversed.
Shaw and Maguire became England regulars during Euro 2020 and Southgate will want them in his line-up for the World Cup in Qatar
Another absolutely essential component of Southgate’s England team currently not playing much is Phillips, who made that £45million move from Leeds United to Manchester City over the summer.
Phillips has long been one of the first names on the teamsheet for the Three Lions boss, forming an effective midfield partnership with Declan Rice.
But Pep Guardiola has given him just one minute of football in City’s opening three league games and as Phillips gazed out from the bench during Sunday’s 3-3 draw at Newcastle, he might have wondered what he’d done.
Phillips picked up a knock in the first of England’s four Nations League games yet still played a role in all of them, basically underlining just how important he is to Southgate.
Kalvin Phillips watches on from the bench as Manchester City drew at Newcastle on Sunday
Plenty of England fans consider the Phillips-Rice axis to be too conservative but Southgate is a creature of habit and it’s difficult to see that changing for Qatar.
Guardiola spoke ahead of the Newcastle game and called Phillips the ‘perfect’ replacement for Fernandinho and said there were ‘no doubts’ about his ability.
But he hasn’t been given a proper opportunity as yet and the competition at City is significantly greater than it was at Leeds, where he was a true linchpin.
And in another blow, Phillips picked up a knock in City’s friendly with Barcelona on Wednesday night and was replaced by Rodri just before the hour mark.
If Guardiola keeps Phillips on the bench going forward, Southgate will have another major call to make in midfield. Maybe it’s time for Jude Bellingham to take over?
Phillips has played just a few minutes of Premier League action for Manchester City so far
With the uncertainty over Maguire, Southgate will hope to avoid a similar situation with Stones, who has been a regular in the heart of his defence for a long time.
Guardiola is blessed with plenty of central defensive options and he started Nathan Ake alongside Ruben Dias for their first two Premier League games.
In a more encouraging sign, Stones did start against Newcastle on Sunday but given City conceded three goals it may persuade Guardiola to revert back.
Stones was also in and out of the side for most of last season and really could do with a consistent run to ensure he arrives at the World Cup in peak condition.
Little of that will matter to the City manager, however, who likes to rotate and if both Stones and Maguire come in cold for the tournament that really will be a problem for Southgate.
John Stones struggles to contain Allan Saint-Maximin during City’s 3-3 draw at Newcastle
City are also spoilt for choice in attack and so Grealish could find himself in a similar boat.
He did start City’s opening Premier League game against West Ham but then found himself on the bench for the second fixture against Bournemouth before a knock kept him out the Newcastle draw.
Grealish enjoyed more and more time on the field during his first season with the club and ended up a Premier League champion. But it was noticeable that Guardiola looked elsewhere for the big Champions League games.
Grealish sits on the bench against Bournemouth and is likely to be in and out of the City team
England-wise, the 26-year-old was a superb impact player from the bench during the Euros but will no doubt have ambitions to become a regular starter for his country.
Southgate will need him during the World Cup because not every game will go exactly to plan and Grealish does offer something a bit different.
His returns for City will need to improve in the meantime if he is to push the likes of Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka for a starting place.
Southgate loves the impact Grealish can make from the bench, as was seen during the Euros
Gallagher’s impressive form on loan at Crystal Palace last season saw him break into the England reckoning.
After making his debut in the hilariously one-sided 10-0 qualifying win over San Marino, he clocked up further game time in the March friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast, and the Nations League match with Hungary.
Southgate will certainly strongly consider him as a midfield option for the 26-man World Cup squad but it will depend on how often he plays now he has returned to Chelsea.
Naturally, there is more stiff competition in their midfield with the likes of Jorginho, N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all up against Gallagher for Thomas Tuchel’s favour.
Having been no more than a late substitute in Chelsea’s opening two games, the fact he was hooked for Christian Pulisic during the dreadful 3-0 loss at Leeds on Sunday doesn’t bode well for regular game time.
Conor Gallagher, who broke into the England team when on loan at Crystal Palace, will find increased midfield competition now he’s back with Chelsea
Mings has been a regular in the England squad for three years now and has clocked up a few starts, especially when Southgate favoured three at the back.
He will certainly be in his thoughts as a back-up centre-half for Qatar but Mings has endured a rocky opening to the season.
Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard stripped him of the captaincy and dropped him from the team for the season opener against Bournemouth, which they duly lost 2-0.
Gerrard then had some strong words for Mings afterwards, saying: ‘When Tyrone is back at his best and looks me in the eye and shows that he’s ready to play, he’ll get opportunities.’
Steven Gerrard (left) stripped Tyrone Mings of the Aston Villa captaincy ahead of the season
Mings obviously said the right things because he has completed Villa’s three games since.
Southgate will hope he overcomes that early season uncertainty because the aforementioned issues with Maguire and Stones mean the door may be ajar for Mings to win a place in the England defence.
Even when in peak form for Liverpool, Southgate has never fancied Trent Alexander-Arnold in the right-back position.
In fairness, it’s an area where England aren’t short of options and while Alexander-Arnold is highly effective pushing forward, his defensive attributes often leave plenty to be desired.
His last outing for England came as a right wing-back in the Nations League defeat to Hungary in Budapest in June but Alexander-Arnold will have to go some in the next two months to convince Southgate to pick him.
A sloppy performance in Monday night’s defeat to Man United certainly didn’t do those World Cup ambitions any favours at all.
Trent Alexander-Arnold endured a torrid evening as Liverpool were beaten by Man United
You really fear for England should the nightmare scenario happen and Harry Kane suffers an injury before or during the World Cup.
While they have plenty of exciting wide attackers – and Southgate will hope Monday night is an indicator of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho returning to form – they lack a back-up centre forward.
At the moment, it’s probably Roma’s Tammy Abraham who has taken over from Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins in the Kane deputy role.
You fear for Calvert-Lewin – although Southgate has handed him 11 England caps, he has missed the start of the Premier League season with a knee injury and will be out until mid-September.
Calvert-Lewin, who managed only five goals in an injury-plagued 2021-22, will need to produce a flurry of goals when he returns to action in order to stand a chance.
Currently out with an injury, Dominic Calvert-Lewin will need a goal flurry when he returns
SO HOW WILL ENGLAND LINE-UP?
In an ideal world, the team Southgate will pick at the World Cup will be: Pickford; Walker, Maguire, Stones, Shaw; Rice, Phillips; Saka, Mount, Sterling; Kane.
If that seems an echo of the side from Euro 2020, that’s because Southgate is loyal to those players who have performed well for him.
But as we’ve discussed, there are currently question marks over a number of those and this is before we’ve factored in the inevitable injuries and losses of form in the lead-up to Qatar.
If those problems persist, an alternative England starting XI could read: Pickford; Walker, Mings, Guehi, Justin; Rice, Bellingham; Saka, Mount, Sterling; Kane.
That looks a bit unproven so Southgate will be hoping his regulars can get themselves into some decent form as soon as possible.
In many cases, just getting on the pitch would be a good start.