March 28, 2018 / 10:57 AM / 4 months ago

Solid England searching for World Cup identity

LONDON (Reuters) - But for a contentious late VAR decision, England manager Gareth Southgate would have been planning his next World Cup steps on the tail of back-to-back wins over two major footballing powers, draws against two more and a run of six successive clean sheets.

Soccer Football - International Friendly - England vs Italy - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - March 27, 2018 England manager Gareth Southgate and Lewis Cook after the match REUTERS/Darren Staples

Lorenzo Insigne’s penalty to earn Italy a 1-1 draw at Wembley skewed those stats, but not the underlying theme - namely that England are proving adept at keeping teams out, though still struggle with their own penetration.

The Italy draw, along with a 1-0 win in the Netherlands and goalless draws with Germany and Brazil, showed that, in friendly situations at least, England can still parade themselves among the big guns of the international game.

However, the acid test comes in Russia in three months, where their woeful displays in recent tournaments will suddenly become the more relevant touchstone.

Southgate is realistic enough to not invest too much hope on the back of friendlies but he will at least be finalising his World Cup squad from a position, if not of comfort, then at least not panic.

With only two more friendlies against Nigeria and Costa Rica to come in June, he will already have a firm idea of the bulk of his squad. Also, with such a small pool of top level English talent performing in the Premier League, his options are limited anyway.

His bigger issue is his likely starting XI, which looks anything but settled, though in terms of shape he does seem to have opted for a five-man defence, featuring wing backs.

Ironically, given that Tuesday’s penalty was the first goal England have conceded in more than 10 hours of play, his defensive lineup for the opening World Cup game against Tunisia remains anyone’s guess.

John Stones is assured of his place but any two from five could be played alongside him. On Tuesday it was debutant James Tarkowski and wing back Kyle Walker but Harry Maguire, Joe Gomez and Alfie Mawson are also options, if inexperienced ones.

The manager also has to make a decision about his goalkeeper, where he runs the risk of repeating the fatal error of several of his predecessors in showing loyalty to a long-serving but past-his-best stalwart, in this case Joe Hart.

ATTACKING THREAT

The only real attacking certainties in the team and the only players likely to strike fear into top-class opposition are Harry Kane, who missed the Dutch and Italy games through injury, and Raheem Sterling, man of the match on Tuesday. Jamie Vardy, on target against Italy, will also carry a goal threat.

Sterling’s incisive running combined with his improved strength and better finishing make him a real weapon but Southgate has to find a way to get the best from him and also work out how he combines with the other classy attacking midfielder, Dele Alli.

With the rest of his midfield options looking a little so-so, England’s best chance of beating any of the major teams in Russia is probably to develop further into a counter-attacking team, using the pace of their wing backs.

That approach is unlikely to be called upon in the group stage against Panama, beaten 6-0 by Switzerland on Tuesday, or Tunisia. However, it might pay dividends against Belgium should Southgate’s side find themselves needing to take some risks in their final group game.

Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge

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