AN ENGLAND XI BASED PURELY ON FORM IN 22-23: WHITE, SMALLING, RASHFORD…
It’s just over two weeks until the World Cup kicks off and Gareth Southgate probably has a pretty good idea of who will make his final 26-man squad.
But he’s injury issues with some of his favourites (Kyle Walker, Kalvin Phillips, Reece James) have given him something to think about, as has the form of some others (Harry Maguire, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson) may only intensity his headache.
Selecting a World Cup squad is a delicate balance between tried-and-trusted players that have always been dependable, and emerging candidates that are playing their best football at the time. But which players are most in form right now?
We’ve put together an England XI based purely and entirely on their form this season, arranged in a 4-3-3 formation.
GK: Jordan Pickford
Aaron Ramsdale is developing nicely at title-challenging Arsenal and looked likely to challenge Pickford’s No.1 shirt ahead of the World Cup. But the Everton ‘keeper looks back to his best in 2022-23 so far.
Ramsdale and Newcastle’s Nick Pope have conceded fewer goals than Southgate’s preferred choice, but they’re left better protected by their defences. Only Brentford’s David Raya and Nottingham Forest’s Dean Henderson have made more saves than Pickford this season.
RB: Kieran Trippier
People have been squabbling about Reece James and Trent Alexander-Arnold for so long that they’ve forgotten about the classics.
Who could forget that Trippier free-kick against Croatia at the last World Cup? Four years on, he left England to become a La Liga champion and is arguably better than ever at Newcastle.
The 32-year-old has a goal and two assists and has been a vital figure in Newcastle boasting the best defensive record in the Premier League.
Kyle Walker and James have been perfectly decent, but they both face a race to be fit in time for Qatar. Meanwhile, Alexander-Arnold has had his critics for his role in Liverpool’s defensive frailty this season.
CB: Ben White
There’s a strong argument that White has been the best English defender so far this season and he might not even make Southgate’s squad.
Admittedly his best run of form to date has been at right-back, where England are already stacked with solid options. But his natural role is at centre-back, where we’re sticking him, and his versatility could prove incredibly useful. He can even slot in at the base of midfield if required.
“Ben would be very comfortable playing on the right side of a back three as well as in the middle or as a full-back,” says Gunners boss Mikel Arteta.
“If you ask me if he is ready to make that step (to England), then the answer is yes because he is a very confident boy, he gives you absolutely everything, he is always available and he has the courage to play under real pressure.”
CB: Chris Smalling
The former Manchester United centre-back hasn’t received a cap since 2017. But he’s been quietly very solid for Jose Mourinho’s Roma, outshining the other English candidate in Serie A, Milan’s Fikayo Tomori, who’s had his struggles at the San Siro in recent months.
“I still have a massive appetite to go [to another World Cup] and every time there is a squad call-up I am disappointed, even though I have been out of the picture for quite a while,” Smalling told The Independent.
“There is still that disappointment every time. I feel like I can offer a lot and I want to offer a lot. I want to be there. When you are always getting called up and playing, the danger is you take it for granted. Now I reflect ever more how great it is to get that call-up and go away with England.”
Everton pairing James Tarkowski and Conor Coady are probably the best the Premier League has to offer in terms of in-form English centre-backs that start every week. But it’s hard to look beyond Smalling, who has played a big role in Roma’s sturdy defence this season.
LB: Luke Shaw
Like so many others, Shaw seemed to suffer a post-Euros hangover last season. He struggled amid United’s disastrous 2021-22 campaign.
Many expected him to be out of the picture entirely after the signing of Tyrell Malacia, who made some promising early appearances. But Shaw has dug in and done well to regain his place in Erik ten Hag’s preferred XI.
The left-back also has two assists in his last three appearances, and United have conceded just one goal in their last six.
DM: Declan Rice
One of the stalwarts of England’s run to the Euro 2020 final, Rice has kicked on since that disappointment. He’s ever-improving and is now one of the Premier League’s standout midfielders.
West Ham are enduring an underwhelming bottom-half campaign so far, but that has little to do with the form of their 23-year-old captain.
He was named man of the match in the Hammers’ recent 1-0 defeat at Liverpool and produced a similarly impressive display as they lost by the same scoreline away to Manchester United.
DM: Jude Bellingham
Having been hyped as a generational talent when he emerged as a 16-year-old at boyhood club Birmingham City, it’s not taken Bellingham long to realise that potential.
He’s arguably the very best player in the Bundesliga and looks destined to become the first £100million+ Englishman if he moves on next summer. He has six goals and two assists in his last nine appearances for Dortmund since the last international break.
Given Kalvin Phillips’ injury struggles, there’s a slot wide open for Bellingham. Surely he slots straight in.
FWR: Bukayo Saka
One of the outstanding individuals in Arsenal’s resurgence under Arteta and sudden title charge this season.
Saka has four goals in his last seven appearances and has recently come up big with man-of-the-match displays against PSV and Liverpool.
He’s also scored pressure penalties against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool since that miss in the Euro 2020 final. The kid has nerves of steel.
AMC: James Maddison
Another that was snubbed by Southgate in the last international break, it’s increasingly difficult to look at Maddison’s form and argue he shouldn’t at least be on the plane, if not a starter.
Only Son Heung-min, Kevin De Bruyne and Harry Kane have more combined goals and assists in the Premier League this calendar year. Factor in the fact he’s turning out for a Leicester City side that have been largely shambolic this season and you have to ask what more he can do.
FWL: Marcus Rashford
After seriously struggling last season, Rashford has got his mojo back. He’s the top scorer for a Manchester United side that look unrecognisable from last season.
“It’s a completely different energy around the club and the training ground. That puts me in a better headspace and I just feel really motivated now. That’s the area I was struggling in,” he told Sky Sports after his match-winning bullet header against West Ham.
“I was struggling at times with more mental things. It wasn’t really my own performance but other things off the pitch. That’s the biggest difference from last season.
“I get that it’s your job to speak about what happens on the pitch but for the players we have to get into the right headspace for every game.”
ST: Harry Kane
Yeah, yeah, Ivan Toney and Callum Wilson have been excellent for Brentford and Newcastle respectively, but they’ll have to fight it out for a place on the bench as back-up.
Kane remains the first name on Southgate’s teamsheet for good reason. The England captain has 23 goals and nine assists in 34 Premier League appearances in 2022, while only Erling Haaland has more goals so far this season.