Ahead of England’s opening World Cup game against Iran on November 21, the Sky Sports pundits have picked their starting XIs and discussed some of the big decisions to be made.
Gareth Southgate named his 26-player squad on Thursday and will now have just a few days to work with his players before their first match in Qatar.
On Super Sunday, Sky Sports pundits Gary Neville, Jamie Redknapp, Karen Carney and Jamie Carragher all picked their England starting XI, explaining their choices. Key individual players were also analysed, plus the potential formations Southgate could consider.
Read on to see who they chose and why…
Neville: Why England must play with a back three
“I’m going with a three at the back because I’m going with what Gareth has done in the last few games. I would be amazed if he switched it from that to a back four. He hasn’t got a centre-back pairing that he trusts. Which two centre-backs do you put in and say you trust them? None of them are good enough, unfortunately.
“One of the best ways to beat a team like Iran, USA and Wales is to stop counter-attacks and defend well. In international football, if you get counter-attacked, you’re going to be in big trouble.
“If you have Bellingham racing forward from midfield, you have just Rice back there with potentially Harry Maguire and Stones, who can both get done by players in those channels, which the USA and Wales definitely have. It’s critical in the games against the weaker teams, not just the better ones.
“Alexander-Arnold and Shaw will be forward to make it a 3-4-3. I think we will dominate the ball in the first three matches. If Bellingham goes forward, then one of those wing-backs will step in. That back three allows for one of them to step in.
“Gareth Southgate knows international football and knockout football better than any England manager I’ve ever seen, he knows you have to build this defensive base knowing that his attacking players will get him a goal.
“I don’t think Alexander-Arnold will play in a knockout game. That right-hand side, Trippier and Walker will come in for White and Alexander- Arnold as they get fit and the games get harder.
“There’s also another reason – I think he will play a back three in one of the last-16 or quarter-final games and he’s only got five days before the tournament. He hasn’t got time to be able to switch formations, he has to go with the one he’s going to stick with.
“He might change players, but you can’t be flipping systems about… They played a back three in the last two matches in March and they’ve not played a back four for eight months now. He would’ve used the same system in March that he’ll play in the tournament.”
Carragher: Foden has to start in a front three
“People question Mason Mount, he’s not as eye-catching as other players, but every manager picks him. He understands the other side of the game and he could do a job in that position, work back and make sure England aren’t counter-attacked through the centre of the pitch.
“I love Raheem Sterling and he was England’s best player in the Euros, he was out of this world. This season his form has not been great and lately in an England shirt. Saka has been playing that well in that position.
“I prefer Raheem on the left so it wasn’t a case of Saka vs Sterling. It was always going to be Saka on that side and then it’s Sterling vs Foden. I just think the actual ability of Foden, the way he’s playing since the European Championships, I’d go with him.
“Foden has to be in the team. He hasn’t played well enough in an England shirt but when we see him for City, he’s the best English talent right now. For me, I don’t think he fits into a central-midfield three, he’s part of the front three.
“He’s got blistering pace. Sometimes you worry about putting a midfield player in a front three because you think he’s always going to come feet to the ball, but with his pace, you want someone running in behind Kane.”
Redknapp has Grealish and Saka in XI
“I’m picking this team for the first day of the tournament. I just prefer Pope and Ramsdale to Pickford. It’s a back four, I want to be quite attacking. We haven’t got players in form.
“Harry Maguire hasn’t had enough football for me. Yes Eric Dier hasn’t been in the best of form himself but that is the best back four I can think of right now. Trent could have been with Trippier either way.
“I’d have Bellingham and Rice as a two and Phil Foden just in behind Harry Kane where we haven’t played him before – but that’s where he wants to play. In a midfield three. You can play a one and a two, with Rice then Bellingham and Foden.
“I want to get him on the ball and on the half turn – he doesn’t get that chance at Manchester City with the likes of Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. For us, we don’t have enough players like that.
“We don’t get him on the ball enough. I want him on the ball, coming into pockets and picking it up. As a midfield player, how would I like it if Phil Foden is picking the ball up and is so elusive and hard to play against?
“In a midfield area which is so congested, he could find that space.
“Mason Mount won’t be happy to not get in that XI but I feel Foden, on the half turn, can run with the ball and has more end product right now. That’s where I would play him.
“I remember hearing him two years ago when the Euros were on and he was asked where he wants to play and he said midfield. So he doesn’t want to be wide left or wide right.
“Jack Grealish is a bold one but I always feel he is the one player who looks for Harry Kane when he gets the ball. Saka is bang in form so I feel he has to play as well. Rashford is going to be a wildcard coming on 10, 20 minutes into the game. But I would have Foden in behind Kane.”
Carney backing Maguire
“I wasn’t confident with anyone I put in that centre-back position, but I went with Maguire because he has experience with tournament football for the opening game. Also his relationship with Pickford and John Stones.
“At the Euros, for every game, I was behind the goal for England so I watched how they communicated, how they worked. He hasn’t been great, we can’t hide that, but I’d back him.
“There’s not much preparation time so I think Gareth’s got to pick the team that have played together a lot and that’s what I would do as well because usually you’ve had two or three weeks to bring everybody in.
“You have to back him and support him and England fans have to as well. I expect him to play. Man Utd bought him as well for his heading ability – 30 per cent of goals are set-pieces so he’s very good in the air and I’d back him on that as well.”
Carragher: Starting against Iran can help Maguire
“Since England’s last games where it went poorly for him, I think I said consistently for a few weeks that you can’t play Maguire at the World Cup. But the closer it’s got to it, I’m looking at other centre-back options and I’m not sure you can play them either.
“Karen makes a great point that the relationship with Stones and Pickford, as well as Luke Shaw – who’s a club team-mate – came into my mind. And the fact it was Iran in the first game, I think they’re going to be really deep and defensive and maybe try the odd counter-attack.
“Will Gareth Southgate be thinking that he can get Maguire a game here, almost 90 minutes? You can’t use a World Cup as almost warm-up games, but I look at that game and think another 90 minutes where he might not get as extended as he would do later on.
“If every centre-back in the country is playing at the best we’ve seen them all play, Maguire is the best. That might be going back two years and he may not get back there ever again, but I don’t think you can do what we’ve done at other tournaments with other centre-backs going in there.”
Would right wing-back be better for Alexander-Arnold?
Neville: “Southgate won’t play him as a right-back for England. Will he be a right wing-back? It’s unfortunate the defensive situation with England. I like the idea of Shaw playing as a left centre-back in a three but Chilwell is not there. You could maybe play Saka but it’s a bit too weird.
“In terms of generational talents, Alexander-Arnold is that really. If you look at what he is in his position, there’s nothing like him in terms of his delivery.
“Playing him as a right wing-back gives him an opportunity to get him into the team. You could never play him as a right-back in a knockout game for England, but if he starts that tournament well and he starts putting in those crosses from the right wing-back position, he could stay in the team because you’ve got Walker and White behind him in that channel, they do comfortably get out there well.
“I think he would be better if he was against a winger. I think he has his problem when the ball is in the centre or on the other side of the pitch and he’s not quite got his distances or concentration right, or he gets caught forward.
“If you’re going to play him, you do it against Iran, the USA and Wales and then you might think about starting him in a back five [for the knockouts].”
Carragher: “Trent is unique… When you talk about a luxury player, you’re usually talking about a winger or a No 10. He didn’t come through as a full-back, he was a midfield player and he’s gone to full-back for Liverpool and he’s almost a luxury in that.
“Liverpool are that good of a team, you see the best of him in terms of getting on the ball, crossing positions, getting the ball in midfield, playing people through, he does less defending.
“But England aren’t as good as Liverpool so they will do more defending. So you’ll see less of Trent going forward and more defending, which is obviously where he has problems at times.”
‘Bellingham a generational player’
Redknapp: “I think we’ve got a generational player in Bellingham that doesn’t come along very often. I played with a lot of good midfield players in Scholes and Gascoigne and I think we’ve got to be very careful with a player like him because he’s got to play. We’ve got to get him on the ball, we give him too many defensive restrictions.
“I want to see an England team that others are scared of playing against. Not that we’re going to sit back and show too much respect, with the players we’ve got, we need to take care of it by being attacking and on the front foot.
“That’s why I like players like Bellingham who can attack games and do what he’s doing in the Bundesliga right now.”
Carragher: “When you go through the England team now, you think of who is world class and Kane and Foden go into that category. Bellingham is waiting to take that step and maybe we’ll be saying that after the World Cup.”
Carney: “I’m from Birmingham and we produced him! I just hope he doesn’t sit and we let him go a little bit more. I don’t think we will let him go, I think he’ll stay deep to protect the back line, but I really want him to go and express himself. He’s so mature for what his age is.”
Agree or disagree? Pick your own England start XI below.
England’s Group B fixtures
Monday November 21 – England vs Iran (Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan; kick-off 1pm)
Friday November 25 – England vs USA (Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor; kick-off 7pm)
Tuesday November 29 – Wales vs England (Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan; kick-off 7pm)