The Early Sub: Can The Lions Roar In Russia Next Summer?

With Dominic Solanke’s masterful leadership of England’s triumph in Korea for the U-20 World Cup. England became U-20 World Cup Champions for the first time in their history after defeating Venezuela in the finals. Dominic Solanke joins a very select company by winning the tournament’s golden ball award and joining legends like Diego Maradona, Sergio Aguero, Paul Pogba, and Lionel Messi. This title has brought an exceptional amount of noise back to the isles with a new set of hope ringing through England. After an excruciatingly awful performance at World Cup 2014, and after the direct sequel of that performance at last summer’s EUROs, this title has England hopeful again. Can England make a deep run in Russia next year? Will some of these players have a say at next year’s World Cup? The Early Sub will give you a projection on England’s World Cup for next summer.

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The Captaincy

First and foremost, perhaps the biggest issue swirling England is who’s going to don the captain’s armband in Russia? Harry Kane was most recently handed the armband against Scotland and saved them at the death like a true captain. Harry Kane is an excellent leader on the pitch and could be the future captain of England. There is one man on the England side who both deserves to be on the pitch, and with the armband, and that’s Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson. The current captain of Liverpool, the heir to Steven Gerrard’s role, should be taken to the national team as well. Henderson is coming off a decent season at Liverpool that was only hampered down by injury. If Henderson could stay healthy next year, they’ll be no doubt in my mind that there’ll be a spot on Southgate’s starting 11 for him, with the Captaincy waiting for him. He’s a director. Or a conductor of a symphony if you prefer. England has the opportunity to play a high tempo style of play, full of pace and energy and Henderson would be the solid rock in the middle of the pitch. Defensive minded and a cunning passer, Henderson is the perfect cog, to run the English offense, and to provide protection for the defense. Kane is certainly the future leader of England and will be handed the captaincy perhaps as early as the 2020 EUROs, but World Cup 2018 is for Jordan Henderson to lead.

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Team Selection

Now for the part of the manager’s job that is looked at from under the microscope. Team selection. Roy Hodgson had decided that Mauricio Pochettino’s talented corps of Tottenham Englishmen could lead the Lions but that failed horrifically. But that’s not the fault of those talented Tottenham players however. The absurd decisions to put Harry Kane on spotkick duties eliminated any chance for England to score off set pieces. The corners were wild and the free kicks were sent into the atmosphere. I mean, there’s a reason he doesn’t take free kicks at Tottenham. Anyways, the formula for World Cup success flows through Tottenham and I believe Gareth Southgate knows that. Danny Rose, Harry Kane and Dele Alli all will have spots on the England squad and so will Kyle Walker (even though he’s out of North London by the end of the summer). Kane is England’s best player and will own the striker position without a single strip of doubt. I don’t have to tell you how dynamite he is with Dele Alli as well, and he’ll also surely have a spot in the Starting XI. He’ll occupy an attacking midfielder’s role and will play off of Harry Kane. Also in the midfield should reside Ross Barkley. With Henderson at holding midfield, that’ll give Barkley the freedom to push attacks and be the creative piece in the middle of the pitch for the English. Raheem Sterling will surely have a spot out on the wings for Southgate’s squad as well. Sterling will only improve under Pep Guardiola, and is already a 5 star skiller that can easily glide through defenses. He’ll only be getting better, and by next summer, Southgate could own the English version of Neymar.

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The Holes

If you haven’t noticed, my formation for England’s side is a 4-3-3, which means that I left out the goalkeeper, center backs and right winger in my England starting XI. I call those spots the holes, because they could be filled out in anyway between now and Russia next summer. It’s usually the questionable positions where team selection becomes absolutely vital for an international manager. There are many names that could fill out those positions, but I’ll give you the names that will perform next summer and for years to come. Starting with the goalkeeper that Southgate must call up for the World Cup and it’s not Joe Hart or Jack Butland. It’s Jordan Pickford. The Sunderland keeper will not stay Tyne side past this summer as he’s received interest from all of England’s top clubs. Playing for the worst team in the Premier League, Pickford was the league’s top goalkeeper, having to face an incredible amount of shots and doing a great job keeping most of them out. His distribution is years ahead of his time and his reflexes are top notch. He’s the future of English goalkeeping and should be given the number 1 shirt starting next summer. Just as Manuel Neuer may have received the starting goalkeeping job for Germany a bit prematurely at World Cup 2010 so he could be ready for years to come, is how England must handle Pickford. Let the youngster play and lay down the foundation for the English spine now. Center back was tough with England’s best defender being Gary Cahill last year. At the EUROs, they paired Cahill with Chris Smalling and the English defense crumbled. Cahill will be 32 when WC 2018 comes around and faith in Smalling has just about diminished since the EUROs with Mourinho looking to boot out the Man United leader. So who will take charge of the English backline next summer? I have three names to fill the two spots for you. The first name is former Manchester United defender and current Manchester United target, Michael Keane of Burnley. He made his return to the Premier League this season at Turf Moor with Sean Dyche, and he absolutely thrived. Now with Keane being a United target, his defensive prowess could only improve. Dyche has proven that he can elevate Keane to the next level and Mourinho is an incredible developer of defensive players. If Keane goes to United this summer, his spot on England’s roster will be just about certain (barring injuries). Next to Keane could be Liverpool target, Harry Maguire. Maguire’s Hull side were demoted but Maguire won’t be joining them in the Championship next season. With Virgil Van Dijk’s move to Liverpool collapsing, Maguire seems like the best option to add depth to that Liverpool defense. He was one of the best defenders in the league, having to tame so many attacks from the Premier League’s vicious attacking sides. He was outstanding under Marco Silva and a move to Liverpool will continue his development where he could turn into an excellent starting defender in the Premier League. He could be the answer for England in the back as they continue to search for the answers to their defensive holes. The third option I have for England is to call up Steve Cook from Bournemouth. Not the sexiest or first choice center back for most coaches, Steve Cook is one hell of a defender and is absurdly underrated. His exploits are kept in the shadows mostly due to the club he plays for, but Bournemouth can go blow for blow with England’s best on most occasions with phenom manager, Eddie Howe at the helm. Howe’s Bournemouth side achieved promotion two years ago and finished as high as 9th this year for Bournemouth’s highest finish ever in the Premier League. The only player for the Cherries to play every single second of their wondrous campaign this season? Steve Cook. In fact, he’s one of five players to play every minute this season (Forster, Gibson, Azpilicueta, and Foster). Cook’s 2 interceptions a game from the back were more then David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, or Michael Keane. A man who puts on an effort like that for his club may deserve to be looked at for his country. The final hole is on the right wing. Who should fill in the spot for the English to flank Harry Kane on his shooting foot. I’ll give you the perfect name, and it’s one you’re surely not expecting. Just take a look at Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend. Townsend this past season for Palace would send in 1.4 key passes a game while completing 2 dribbles a game. Townsend’s creativity often created space for Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha to shoot and it reflected in each of their goal tallies. Townsend’s pace and width was a perfect compliment to Zaha’s trickiness and brilliance and Benteke’s strength and eye for goal. Is it any different with Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane? Townsend can set up his compatriots in the same way he sets up his teammates. He’ll be 26 when the World Cup in Russia comes around and it’ll be likely that Townsend will just continue to develop and grow as a winger. He could very well be the answer for England’s attack on the right.

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World Cup Projections

I mean, I think this side I just named is a pretty decent one. But it’s by no means, the most menacing England side you’ve ever seen. Harry Kane is absolutely brilliant, Dele Alli is a shining talent and Raheem Sterling is a clever pace monster. But they’re no class of ’92, but that also doesn’t mean that this side can’t create some sort of noise at the World Cup. This young side needs to carry a certain energy with them when they travel to Russia. A certain belief has to be driven into these players and I believe that Gareth Southgate can give it to them. The World Cup will be his first major tournament to show what he’s made of, and it’s nowhere to go but up for England. Suffering humiliating exits in the Group Stage of World Cup Brazil and to the hands of Iceland in the first knockout round of the EUROs has England down in the dumps. This side is good enough to beat Wales but it also capable of embarrassing themselves to Iceland. The World Cup is a much bigger monster then the EUROs however, and this side is capable of rising to the occasion. Most of these players were chosen because they have a point to prove, and would use that motivation to perform for their nation. This team could make noise deep into the knockout stages.

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