James Maddison, Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire will make the headlines when Gareth Southgate names his World Cup squad on Thursday – whether they’re included on the list or not.
While I expect the Manchester United duo to both be given seats on the plane to Qatar, Maddison’s selection is still very much 50-50.
Southgate is still sweating on a number of key players who are racing to get fit enough for selection. Kalvin Phillips, Reece James and Kyle Walker are in the middle of intensive rehabilitation programmes, and also at the centre of an anxious wait.
This will be the first World Cup where nations are allowed to pick 26 players for the tournament, after new rules introduced by FIFA, and that gives the England boss a little more wriggle room.
It means Southgate can consider players who might not be fully fit as well as those who can be used as impact substitutes, overcoming some of the limitations posed by traditional 23-man squads. Southgate is no fan of the bigger squads, though he did work with a 26-strong party for last summer’s Euros.
With one full Premier League match round to go before England head to Qatar, the list that Southgate names on Thursday could still be altered, if there are last-minute injuries.
Nations are allowed to make squad alterations at any stage up to 24 hours before their first game – in England’s case, that means an ultimate deadline of November 20.
How many injured players will go to Qatar?
With a number of important England players recovering from injury, a key question is – how many of those can Southgate risk including?
Former England managers Roy Hodgson and Sven Goran Eriksson have both told me that taking injured players to a major tournament is fraught with problems and can be disruptive – there are painful memories of Wayne Rooney and his broken metatarsals in 2006, and of the same injury that saw a semi-fit David Beckham go to Japan and South Korea in 2002.
The fact that this World Cup is uniquely mid-season – with no time for warm-up games and precious little training time before (and during) the tournament itself – only adds to the problems for players who are nursing injuries.
And so while Phillips, Walker and James were vital members of England’s run to the final of the Euros just 16 months ago, it’s doubtful the England boss can include such a large number of unfit players in this squad. One or two might be able to manage their workload and build fitness during the tournament – three or four probably can’t.
There is a sense that the tournament will come too soon for James. That will be devastating for the Chelsea man, who before his knee injury was probably England’s first-choice right-back. But there is no way Southgate can have two unfit right-backs in Qatar, and Walker, I’m told, is much further ahead in his recovery from groin surgery at the start of last month.
Even if Walker is named in the squad, it’s likely he will have only a bit-part to play in the first group games.
The same is true of Phillips, who was named England’s Player of the Year in September – just as he was undergoing shoulder surgery. He’s played less than 20 minutes of football all season and is being gently re-integrated into the Manchester City team. Phillips’ involvement is touch and go. Even if he is fit, he is a long way from being match fit.
Maddison the Maverick or Grealish the Guru
Perhaps the biggest selection debate of all surrounds Maddison. His statistics are undeniable – 30 goal involvements since the start of last season, three more than any other English player.
His form is making him impossible to ignore, and the enlarged squad means he could yet be Southgate’s wild card selection – that player with the X-factor, who England take because he’s special.
England legend Gary Lineker says it would be a travesty if the Leicester talisman was overlooked.
But what has always dogged Maddison’s international involvement is the system that Southgate plays and the number and quality of other attacking options England possess.
Southgate will have a specific number of creative, attacking options he wants to take. Probably six or seven, as it was for the Euros. So, with Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka guaranteed a spot – and Marcus Rashford also likely – is there space for Maddison too?
If the England boss wants seven forwards, then yes. If he wants six, to use the extra body to cover a weakened defence, then no.
And if England need a goal in the second half of a knockout game, will Southgate turn to Maddison the maverick ahead of Grealish the guru?
These are the tough questions the England boss will be asking himself.
Furthermore, Southgate is adamant in his demands that every player must fit into the squad ethos, and for reasons few can explain, Maddison’s face doesn’t seem to fit. One England cap (against Montenegro three years ago) is quite frankly criminal, for a player of his quality.
Jadon Sancho has similarly suffered with the abundance of English attacking talent. His lack of game-time for Manchester United since mid-October because of illness reaffirms he is likely to miss out again.
Who will provide back-up for Kane?
Who is understudy to Harry Kane? That is another dilemma facing Southgate.
Rashford has been playing regularly as Manchester United’s number nine, and has returned to form under Erik ten Hag. He would have been included in the September squad, had a minor injury not thwarted him.
I expect Rashford to be included in the World Cup squad.
Doubts over England’s back-up strikers, together with his versatility in playing wide, make him a really strong candidate.
In recent times, Tammy Abraham has been Southgate’s go-to man, the first sub off the rank when Kane needs a rest. Especially, since Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s injury nightmare.
But Abraham didn’t play a minute of football in the last international break, which leads to question marks over whether Southgate is convinced he can rely on the Roma man. Remember, England were behind and chasing the game against both Italy and Germany, but Abraham remained warming the bench.
The 25-year-old flourished last year under Jose Mourinho but he has struggled so far this season, with only three goals to his name.
That has opened a window of opportunity for others, notably Callum Wilson and Ivan Toney, who may be battling with each other for a place in the squad.
Neither is ideal from Southgate’s perspective. Whilst Toney was called up for the first time in September, he didn’t make his international debut, so to throw him straight into a World Cup would be a risk, despite his excellent form.
He has though, scored six goals in his last eight Premier League matches.
Similarly, Wilson is on a brilliant run for Newcastle, with three goals in as many appearances. But he has not played for England for more than three years and I would be surprised if Wilson got the nod ahead of others.
The smart money is on Kane, Abraham and Rashford to make up the striking department. Southgate only had three strikers in his Euros squad, and with defensive frailties and injuries in other positions, I suspect he will want extra cover in those areas.
Full-back fitness – and will Alexander-Arnold be included?
Fitness will be the key consideration in terms of who gets in and who misses out in this position.
The injuries have probably killed the debate about whether Trent Alexander-Arnold should be on the plane or not.
Alexander-Arnold is almost certain to be included – even though his brilliance on the ball and his vulnerability defensively against Spurs on Super Sunday led Gary Neville to say that he poses a “real dilemma” for Southgate: “Some of his distribution is out of this world, but in a knockout game could he let you down?”
Alan Shearer says Kieran Trippier “has to start” for England, either at right-back or left-back. Luke Shaw is another shoo-in for the 26. Those two are probably England’s first-choice right and left-backs right now.
Chilwell’s hamstring injury is a big blow for the player and for England. Likewise for Reece James.
Whether or not Walker can prove his fitness, there is still probably room for one more full-back in the squad. Ben White looks most likely to get the call, playing as well as he is for table-topping Arsenal, and adding the versatility of being able to play centre back too.
James Justin, Tyrick Mitchell, Ryan Sessegnon and Nico Henry will all have hopes of seeing their names on the FA website on Thursday, though most of them will be disappointed. It would also be a big call to include Newcastle’s Dan Burn, despite his good form.
Southgate’s centre-back dilemma
Harry Maguire’s lack of involvement for Manchester United will not stop him being included in this squad. That is categorical, but his selection will still be hugely controversial.
Whether he should be selected to play is likely to be one of the dominant talking points in the build-up to England’s first game on November 21. Plenty of critics think Maguire should not be in the England 26, never mind in the starting 11 to face Iran – I expect Southgate to take the opposite view.
Eric Dier’s howler that allowed Mohamed Salah to score Liverpool’s second goal on Sunday will have worried the England boss, but he should keep his place.
And so it comes down to how many central defenders Southgate wants at his disposal in Qatar. He had only four for the Euros, but also had a fully-fit Kyle Walker, who was regularly used in a back three.
Maguire, John Stones, Conor Coady and Dier can all be confident of a call, but will there be a fifth centre-back? Does White offer enough centre-back cover, if included?
It’s telling that Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland didn’t give Marc Guehi or Fikayo Tomori a single minute of game-time in the Nations League matches in September.
Many critics feel Tomori in particular offers vital pace in the England defence, but both will be nervously awaiting Thursday’s announcement, and both could miss out.
Limited midfield options
This is an area of the pitch where England have struggled for numbers for a long time.
There were only five midfield names in the squad for the Euros, and Mason Mount was one of those, even though he is used in a variety of positions by Southgate.
Mount, Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham are the only definites, and much depends on Phillips’ inclusion or otherwise.
James Ward-Prowse missed the final cut for the Euros, but may well be needed this time, even if Southgate takes a risk with Phillips.
Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher may just miss out, unless England’s coaches decide they simply need extra midfield bodies.
Pope to pip Henderson between the posts
England’s first-choice keeper is not in question – Jordan Pickford will get the number one shirt. Elsewhere, it’s two from three, with Nick Pope, Aaron Ramsdale and Dean Henderson in the mix.
Nottingham Forest stopper Henderson is most likely to miss out, despite Pope fluffing his audition in Pickford’s absence this autumn. England’s coaches will have noticed with disappointment the howler that led to Germany’s equaliser at Wembley, and Pope’s struggles with distribution.
But he will make the squad, with probably Ramsdale rather than Henderson alongside him.
England’s World Cup squad will be announced at 2pm on Thursday; Follow all the news and reaction live on Sky Sports News and Sky Sports Digital with Rob Dorsett answering your questions on the confirmed England squad on Thursday afternoon