Three Lions (and Two Bonus Points)

As the saying goes – form is temporary, class is permanent and, if you’re English, reputation can cover a multitude of sins. When Gareth Southgate named his 27 man squad for this international break plenty of people were quick to offer their opinions on some of the manager’s choices. Besides ignoring the in-form players at some of the less fashionable Premier League clubs, Southgate went back on his previous assertion that he would only call up players who had been playing regularly by naming serial injury victim Danny Welbeck alongside the recently recovered Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson. The out of favour John Stones was also included in the squad, as was Jack Wilshere, who has managed fully seven months of football without doing himself a mischief. To Southgate’s credit there were debut call-ups for players who’ve enjoyed recent spells of good form including Burnley pair Nick Pope and James Tarkowski along with Swansea’s Alfie Mawson and Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook, but the goodwill generated from these call-ups was tempered somewhat by the inclusion of Jake Livermore and Ryan Bertrand – two players embroiled in a losing relegation scrap. The inclusion of Joe Hart as a fourth goalkeeper perhaps said more about Southgate’s lack of bottle than the second-choice West Ham ‘keeper’s current form.

What if, rather than pick his squads based on who plays for the biggest teams, or who has the most caps, or who’s got the best #banter, Southgate relied solely on statistics to pick the best players? Football, we’re told, isn’t a game played on paper. Unless you’re playing fantasy football. We’ve crunched the numbers in the official Fantasy Premier League game and discovered who, right now, deserves to be On The Plane come June.

*A couple of caveats – we’ve split defenders into full-backs and centre-backs and midfielders into defensive and attacking. Despite the relatively lowly status of Panama and Tunisia it seems unlikely England would get a result playing four wingers.

 Goalkeepers

Britain England Pope

Three goalkeepers is the tournament standard, despite Gareth’s insistence that Joe Hart comes along to shout in the tunnel, and to no-one’s surprise the former Manchester City ‘keeper doesn’t make the cut in our final squad. It feels like England have harboured high hopes for a group of young goalkeepers for the past decade, though no-one has yet emerged as a natural number one – the days of Shilton and Seaman seem a distant memory. According to FPL, the first-choice ‘keeper is a player that sat behind former England international Paul Robinson in the Burnley pecking order last season.

Nick Pope (Burnley) – 131 points
Given the season Sean Dyche’s team are having, and the fact that the squad is made up largely of British and Irish players, its no surprise to see a couple of Burnley players in Southgate’s most recent squad. The Clarets are currently sat 7th in the Premier League despite having the lowest goal tally outside the bottom six, which suggests that they must be doing something right at the back. Pope arrived at Turf Moor at the beginning of last season, initially recruited as back-up to Tom Heaton who, before being injured in September, had staked his claim for being England’s third choice ‘keeper. Despite having no previous experience of the top-flight Pope slipped his hands into Heaton’s gloves with consummate ease, and his excellent perfomances this season have seen the 25-year old become Dyche’s first choice. Having conceded just 22 goals in 26 games and notched ten clean sheets, Pope has proven himself the outstanding English ‘keeper in the Premier League on current form. Pope has also averaged 3.3 saves per game, and has amassed a save percentage of 78.1 – second only to David De Gea. It seems unlikely Pope will travel to Russia as Southgate’s first choice, but if he does get the nod England will be in safe hands.

Jordan Pickford (Everton) – 114 points
It’s been a strange couple of years for Pickford. The only player to emerge from Sunderland’s catastrophic relegation season last time out, the Washington-born stopper was quickly snapped up for an eye-watering £30m by Everton but despite continuing his good form at Goodison, he’s been badly let down by the imbalanced transfer policy that saw the Toffee’s sign five playmakers in the summer. Still, seven clean sheets this season is hardly a disaster, and his presence in the England squad is down to more than just being a shotstopper. Pickford represents England’s answer to the sweeper keeper, and his distribution stats remain impressive, with an average of 9.2 accurate long balls per game putting him head and shoulders above the competition.

Jack Butland (Stoke) – 98 points
Eighteen months ago Butland was the future of English goalkeeping, but injuries and his team’s lack of form have seen his star wane in the past year. Besides Hart, the Stoke City ‘keeper remains the highest capped goalkeepers currently available, and provided Southgate sees sense and leaves the shampoo model at home, Butland is likely to get the nod come the opening game against Tunisia. Five clean sheets and a save percentage of 67.3 is a decent effort for a keeper in such a struggling side and, should the inevitable happen and Stoke are relegated, it’s unlikely he’ll be sticking around the Potteries after the summer. For Butland, the World Cup is an ideal opportunity to remind the Premier League’s bigger sides of how much promise he possesses.

 

Full-Backs

England v Montenegro - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier

The full-back position for England has long been one of life’s great dichotomies. In recent years Southgate and Roy Hodgson have been blessed with a rich field of options at full-back, while Kevin Keegan and Sven Goran Eriksson had to make do with Phil Neville and Danny Mills. The stats thrown up by FPL are surprising to say the least, since at least two of the full-backs likely to make the final squad aren’t included – Tottenham’s Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose both victims of Mauricio Pochettino’s penchant for rotation. Their two replacements come completely from leftfield.

Kyle Walker (Manchester City) – 124 points
One of the first names on the teamsheet, having taken his time in establishing himself as England’s first-choice right-back. At Tottenham, Kyle Walker looked terrific going forward but suspect at the back, but since his £50m to Manchester City last summer, he’s grown into one of the best in the world. Still not as strong defensively as he perhaps should be, his marauding runs down the right hand side offer City deadly pace on the break, and his six assists are testament to his worth in the final third. A pass completion rate of 87.8% highlights Walker’s comfort on the ball, while his part in securing 14 clean sheets this season shouldn’t be underestimated. Whether he’s able to replicate his club form when surrounded by players of a different calibre to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne remains to be seen, but his pace will be vital when England come up against stronger sides.

Kyle Naughton (Swansea City) – 94 points
Sneaking in ahead of Kieran Trippier, thanks in no small part to being an almost ever-present in Swansea’s backline this season, Naughton arrived at Tottenham with Kyle Walker in 2009 and the two players’ careers have taken different paths. Unable to nail down a first team place at White Hart Lane, Naughton was farmed out on loan for three seasons before Swansea stumped up £5m to offer him first team football. Less attacking minded than his former club-mate, Naughton has still managed two assists this season, as well as nine clean sheets, but if Southgate is looking for a full-back to shore up a defence in the late stages of a tight game, Naughton could be his man – the Swans defender averages three clearances per game, and at 5’9’’ can prove a useful tool at set pieces.

Aaron Cresswell (West Ham United) – 87 points
After an excellent second season with West Ham, Aaron Cresswell was unfortunate to miss out on the England squad for Euro 2016, but since then his stock has fallen. The move to the London Stadium appears to have permanently damaged the Hammers, and turbulence surrounding Slaven Bilic and David Moyes has hardly provided the ideal environment for a footballer to develop. Still, he’s getting more game time that Danny Rose and has certainly been more effective than Ryan Bertrand, with six assists this season making him chief goalmaker ahead of Manuel Lanzini and Marko Arnautovic. Despite performing in a struggling side, Cresswell’s attacking contribution measures up not only to Walker, but also the likes of Willian, Aaron Ramsey and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Ashley Young (Manchester United) – 83 points
In the world of FPL, Young is listed as a midfielder, but in reality he’s become Jose Mourinho’s first choice left-back at Manchester United, bringing a whole new meaning to a player’s career going backwards. Having been a regular squad member under Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson, Young has somewhat lost his way in recent years, falling down the pecking order at Old Trafford during Louis Van Gaal’s reign, but becoming the beneficiary of Mourinho’s personal vendetta against Luke Shaw. This season, the former Aston Villa winger has acquitted himself well as an attacking full-back, with two goals and five assists sitting alongside eight clean sheets. Young has proven himself defensively sound, tallying up 45 interceptions so far this season, a total which sees him sitting joint second behind midfield enforcer Nemanja Matic.


Centre-Backs

 

harrymaguire

 Southgate’s options in the centre of defence offer no lack of promise, but a serious dearth in experience. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, two of England’s most experienced centre-backs, find themselves out of favour after downturns in form, while Phil Jones is currently injured. Manchester’s premier Easter Island impersonator makes the cut here but John Stones, the highest capped defender in the current squad, misses out.

Harry Maguire (Leicester City) – 102 points
Although he enjoyed an impressive season with Hull City last time out, there were still plenty of critics that thought Leicester City had overpaid when splashing out £17m on Harry Maguire last summer. The stocky centre-half has since covered those faces in egg, emerging as a key player for the Foxes this season, and a natural replacement for captain Wes Morgan. Maguire’s FPL cause has been aided significantly by his propensity to get forwards, with two goals and four assists outlining the danger he poses to opposition defences. With an average clearance rate of 4.7 per game, Maguire clearly represents a cool head under pressure, and his 1.4 dribbles per game suggest a player comfortable in bringing the ball out from the back. Maguire has the look of a traditional centre-back combined with the ability of a modern continental defender, and his ball-playing attributes will could provide a welcome addition to Southgate’s squad.

Phil Jones (Manchester United) – 101 points
Jones heads to Russia with three tournaments already under his belt, though he was an unused squad member at Euro 2012, and a reputation as a competent-at-best centre-back. When Sir Alex Ferguson sanctioned the £16.5m signing of Jones from Blackburn Rovers, it was the veteran manager’s belief he would grow into one of the leading centre-backs in the world. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite worked out, and his much maligned partnership with Chris Smalling has gone some way to undermining his obvious talent, and that’s without mentioning his constantly gurning face. Still, Jones is the second highest scoring centre-back in FPL this season, having played his part in earning 13 clean sheets for Mourinho’s side. With an average clearances ratio that outstrips Maguire, as well as an impressive pass success percentage of 91.1, Jones is a classier operator than he looks, and his tournament experience will be vital to England’s cause.

Alfie Mawson (Swansea City) – 101 points
Long overdue for an international call-up, Mawson was finally named in the England squad after quietly impressing at Swansea since his move from Barnsley on Deadline Day in 2016. In a season of two halves Mawson has provided some consistency, emerging as one of the few bright lights in Paul Clement’s struggling side and taking on the mantle of talisman for Carlos Carvalhal’s revolution. His winning goal against Liverpool showed that there’s more to Mawson’s game than just being a solid centre-back, but having played all 2700 minutes for the Swans this season his constant presence has provided the foundations for the team to survive. Fit as a butchers dog, and able to get the ball on the deck and play, Mawson might just be a contender for a wildcard World Cup spot.

 

Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United) – 95 points
One of the players singled out as ‘unlucky to miss the cut’ for Southgate’s most recent squad, the youngest captain in the Premier League has gone from strength to strength this season. Newcastle boast the joint best defence outside the top eight, and the importance of Lascelles to their backline was highlighted during the dreadful nine match run without a win between October and December. During that run, the Magpies captain was injured for five games and his side shipped fifteen goals, since then they’ve conceded just fourteen. Though perhaps not the most technically gifted defender, Lascelles’ leadership and organizational skills sets him apart from the other available options, and his average clearance per game ratio of 6.7 suggests he’s a dab hand at spotting danger. Three goals so far this season, two of them match-winners, indicates his prowess at set-pieces too.

Ben Mee (Burnley) – 88 points
Teammate James Tarkowski received the nod from Southgate over Mee, but as far as Fantasy managers are concerned, there’s only one choice when it comes to Burnley centre-backs. Mee’s another defender keen on his clearances, notching 7.6 per game this season, while a blocks per game ratio of 1.5 shows he’s happy to put his body on the line. More of a ‘clean shorts’ defender than Mawson or Lascelles, Mee might lack the ball-playing skills of Jones and Maguire, but he more than makes up for it with strength in the air and tactical intelligence. It seems more likely that his central-defensive partner will get the nod for the World Cup, but there should still be some serious interest in Mee come the summer transfer window.

Defensive Midfielders

 jackcork

The anchormen. The water carriers. The Makelele-role fillers. The players you can pick up for bargain prices in FPL until you realise they’re essentially useless since they don’t score goals, provide assists or even get decent points for clean sheets. And yet, they’re an absolutely pivotal part of the modern football machine – I believe they call it the engine room. England’s usual centre-midfield pairing might include Jordan Henderson, Danny Drinkwater, or Jack Wilshere, but you’ll find none of them here. In fact, there’s an alarming lack of decent defensive midfielders in England…

Jack Cork (Burnley) – 76 points
Completing the trio of Burnley players in England’s FPL World Cup squad, Jack Cork has enjoyed six seasons in the Premier League with Southampton, Swansea and Burnley, and has fully established himself as that player whose name you always forget when you’re taking an ‘Opening Day Lineups’ quiz online. One goal and one assist goes some way to demonstrating how much use Cork is in an attacking sense, but in his role screening the back four he’s extremely competent. A player happy to sit and recycle possession without flicks and tricks can be a crucial ingredient for a side looking to set the tempo of play, and his face is far less irritating than Henderson or Wilshere’s.

Dale Stephens (Brighton and Hove Albion) – 73 points
Another surprise inclusion, Brighton have had plenty of outstanding performers in their maiden Premier League season, but Stephens’ unheralded reliability has made him an unsung hero for the Seagulls. More of a tough tackling midfielder than Cork, Stephens has amassed 80 tackles so far this season – making him the top English tackler in the Premier League, and in the top twenty for interceptions with 48. With a pass completion rate of 84.6%, Stephens is another play who can recycle possession at will, simultaneously providing cover for attacking players to bomb forward. While he’s a player that isn’t even part of the conversation, Stephens should be praised for an excellent debut season in the Premier League.

Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur) – 70 points
Two years ago he was one of the darlings of the England national team, but since then Eric Dier has found himself caught in two minds over which is his best position. Mauricio Pochettino has regularly used him as a third centre-back for Tottenham this season, while Southgate prefers him as a holding midfielder, and it seems like his adaptability has hampered his game, with Dier becoming neither a better defender nor midfielder. His threat in the final third has receded in the past twelve months where once he was useful in dead ball situations, and he’s struggled to see off first team competition from Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama – one a cultured, box to box midfielder, the other a destroyer, with Dier caught somewhere in between. Saying all that, he’s still the best option England have in the engine room and, combined with his defensive teammates, he’s helped Spurs to 14 clean sheets this season. The best passer of the three available, with a pass completion rate of 86.3%, Dier’s the only defensive midfielder in this squad likely to make the final cut and, used properly, will play a key role for Southgate.

Attacking Midfielders

 

raheemsterling

 England might be lacking in options in every other position, but fortunately for Gareth Southgate there’s a host of attacking midfielders who’ve been enjoying stellar seasons. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is likely to be called up for the final squad but misses out here due to competition at club level, while Theo Walcott’s omission from both squads is a blessed relief. Unfortunately his time has been and gone.

Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) – 179 points
Given the absolute fucking meltdown the British economy is walking itself into, it’s been a pleasure to see Sterling bounce back on the pitch. In Brazil four years ago the then Liverpool winger was a precocious upstart, and two years and a £49m transfer to Manchester City later he cut a frustrated and frustrating figure in France. After almost two years under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, however, Sterling has grown into the real deal. With the joint highest FPL score for an English player alongside Harry Kane, Sterling’s fifteen goals and seven assists in the league this season have marked him out as a key player for the champions-in-waiting. Usually deployed just off the central striker, but equally adept in a wide position, Sterling’s pace and improved positional awareness have seen him profit from the creativity of De Bruyne and David Silva. Whether he’s able to replicate this form in front of Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson remains to be seen.

 

Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur) – 138 points
When he’s not being filmed enjoying a spot of tonsil jousting or throwing himself to the ground, Dele Alli can be found enduring a difficult third season at Tottenham. Alli, along with Dier and Kane, went into Euro 2016 as the faces of England’s future, and having marked himself out as a key player at one of the biggest clubs in the country last season, he’s found himself fading behind Heung-Min Son and Christian Eriksen in the plaudit stakes this time out. It should be said that Alli’s drop off in form is only by his own high standards, and six goals and twelve assists is nothing to be sniffed at. The ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck – so expertly demonstrated against Manchester City and Chelsea at White Hart Lane last season – appears to have deserted him this year, though his proclivity to being fouled could aid the national side in Russia – particularly if Southgate can unearth a dead-ball specialist.

Jesse Lingard (Manchester United) – 107 points
There always seems to be one player who, in the season leading up to a tournament, drags themselves from the fringes of the squad to a must-take and, in spite of his social media persona, Lingard has managed just that. In a squad comprised of multi-million pound attackers, Manchester United academy graduate Lingard has made himself an integral part of Mourinho’s plans. Eight goals and four assists from attacking midfield is a decent tally in a side built around a central striker, while his pass completion rate of 87.4% is one of the highest in the England squad. Unlikely to start, given the competition for places, but could be priceless coming off the bench late in games to make a difference. Let’s just hope Southgate takes his iPhone off him.

Marc Albrighton (Leicester City) – 101 points
Another choice from leftfield, literally, Albrighton is enjoying another fine season at the King Power. With England lacking in natural wide players, Southgate could do worse than pack a couple of wingers just in case, and Albrighton fits the bill better than most. Able to operate as a traditional ‘chalk on your boots’ winger, or as a more direct attacking midfielder, the former Aston Villa man has been laying chances on a plate to Jamie Vardy for the past four seasons, and this year has added another seven assists to his collection. Though Southgate doesn’t seem interested in playing with wide-men, Albrighton could prove an ideal solution to launch balls into the box when things are getting a little desperate.

Andros Townsend (Crystal Palace) – 98 points
Poor old Andros. One of Roy Hodgson’s golden boys, Townsend fell out of favour after Newcastle’s relegation in 2016 and has only recently started to rediscover the form that made him one to watch for England. Reunited with Hodgson at Palace, Townsend has formed an excellent partnership with Wilfried Zaha as the two dovetail behind Christian Benteke and cause havoc for defences. Able to hit a free-kick with venom and capable on his day of delivering a decent dead-ball, Townsend’s trickery and dribbling ability would, much like Albrighton, provide an ideal Plan B for England in Russia. With the highest dribbles per game rate of any Englishman in the Premier League, the ability to take a player on is one sorely lacking in the current squad, but unless he can produce a dazzling run of form towards the end of the season it looks like being another year of so close but no cigar for Townsend.

Forwards

 

harrykanne

Going into Euro ’96, Terry Venables had the unenviable choice of picking four strikers from a pool of talent that included Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole, Ian Wright, Chris Sutton and Matt Le Tissier. Going into Russia ’18, Gareth Southgate has to cobble together three strikers from a pool containing one bloody massive fish and a school of minnows. Still, at least Wayne Rooney has retired.

Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur) – 179 points
England’s number one striker will hopefully be spared from corner kick duty in Russia, having been robbed of the opportunity to make his mark in France. Kane was supposed to be a one season wonder, one of those flash-in-the-pan strikers that enjoy one prolific season in the Premier League before seeing out their careers at Blundell Park and Gay Meadow. In 2017 Kane was the top goalscorer in Europe for a calendar year, if that means anything, and this season has also seen him pass a century of Premier League goals. Were it not for injury and Mo Salah he’d be running away with another Golden Boot and, against all the odds, he’s emerged as England’s great hope. The Tottenham striker also leads the way with shots on goal in the Premier League this season, having taken 44 more than Salah. Though his conversion rate is a relatively paltry 15%, if you don’t buy a ticket you won’t win the lottery.

Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) – 135 points
So England’s first choice striker is a player Millwall’s youth team manager wrote off as a teenager, while the back-up option is a Monster drinking Happy Hardcore fanatic who (get this, trivia fans) was playing non-league football during Fabio Capello’s spell in charge of the national team. Vardy, like Kane, has proved his sceptics wrong over the course of the past three seasons, winning the Premier League and continuing his clinical form in front of goal unaffected by his team’s inconsistency. 51 goals in the past three seasons is not to be sniffed at, and the Leicester man provides and entirely different dimension to that offered by Kane. A conversion rate of 25% makes him a more resourceful proposition in front of goal than his fellow striker, though his style of play is unlikely to compliment Sterling and Alli behind him – less useful in the games England are likely to dominate, but come the knockout stages his ability to outstrip defences on the counter will prove vital.

Glenn Murray (Brighton and Hove Albion) – 99 points
Murray came into this season looking to prove he has what it takes to make it in the top flight. He ends it with a vocal campaign to get him to the World Cup. At 34, he’s hardly the most sprightly option available to Southgate, but Murray’s is a story of disappointment and redemption. Having broken down with injury and subsequently been sold on by Crystal Palace the last time he was part of a Premier League squad, Murray has emerged as Brighton’s beacon of hope this season, and his eleven goals have contributed to the Seagulls’ likely survival. Extremely handy from the penalty spot, less so with a tax return, it’d be nice to have a specialised spot-kick taker should the need arise.

 

There are players that have excelled in FPL terms this season that haven’t got a prayer of getting into the England squad for the World Cup, but wouldn’t it be nice, just for once, if an England manager actually paid attention to form over status? Imagine the pride we could feel if Southgate sent out this team against Tunisia:

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Oh. We’re fucked either way aren’t we?

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