What can we learn from England’s final two friendlies before the World Cup squad selections?

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After a rather unexpectedly impressive couple of friendlies during the most recent international break, a selection headache seems to be on the cards for England manager Gareth Southgate. But who, and what, stood out as the main talking points during those two important fixtures, and what can we learn from the pair of matches?

Given England’s recent underwhelming history, fans were not really expecting much from their team going into these two games, coming up against two giants of international football and lacking the fire-power of second-top goalscorer in the Premier League, Harry Kane. However, impressive performances and results of 0-1 and 1-1 away to the Netherlands and at home to Italy, respectively, are sure to spur some confidence into a country full of fans, who really seemed to be lacking it when looking at the rather underwhelming squad selected.

England’s first match of the week saw them go up against a relatively weakened and inexperienced Dutch side. Southgate, who is better known for his stamp collecting than his desire to play exciting, high-tempo football, set up with a back five, hoping for Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose to provide width and energy as full-backs. England were dominant throughout the 90 minutes, rarely allowing their opponents a clear-cut opportunity on goal, and whenever they did, 24-year-old Everton stopper Jordan Pickford was equal to it. The confident keeper allowed England to add a different style of play to their game, often calmly playing the ball out from the back, setting up attacks, or simply retaining possession for his team. This is something that the England head coach is evidently keen on, given the formation of the team and its attacking wing-backs, as well as the inside forwards of Sterling and Lingard creating the option for fast breaks and Jordan Henderson adapting to his new deep lying playmaker position with ease. All of this was evident in England’s only goal of the match, with Pickford coming at least 15 yards out of his box to start a quick counter-attack, finished by Jesse Lingard to give England their first victory over the Dutch since that famous 4-1 win in Euro ’96.

The last time England had beaten the Dutch was in the famous 4-1 victory of Euro ’96

The second of England’s two games, against Italy, saw the Three Lions line up with a very similar 5-2-3 system, with Jack Butland coming in for Pickford in goal. This change seemed to take away the extra edge that England had against the Netherlands, with Southgate clearly encouraging his goalkeeper to play out from the back in the same style that his counterpart did, but the Stoke City stopper wasn’t quite able to do this to the same standard as Pickford. This emphasised why Pickford should be England’s number one for their first match of the World Cup against Tunisia – although Butland or Pickford are infinitely preferable to Joe Hart, a man whose hands are seemingly made out of crisp packets.

A surprise selection in both games was the decision to play Manchester City full-back Kyle Walker as the right-sided centre-back in the back five, who most people would consider the obvious choice to play as a wing-back. However, the choice seemed to pay off, with the ex-Spurs man putting in two excellent defensive performances, clearly showing how far he has come as a defender during his year working with arguably the best manager in the world, Pep Guardiola, at City. Likewise, 23-year-old winger Raheem Sterling seems to have improved greatly for both club and country as a result of working with the Spaniard, now acting (alongside Harry Kane) as the man on whom England’s World Cup dreams rest.

So where does Southgate go from here?  He appears to have found a system that works defensively for his side, keeping five clean sheets in his last six games, with five at the back being the preferred formation across these fixtures. Competition for places is strong, particularly in goal and defence, with Ashley Young putting in a surprisingly impressive performance at left wing-back during the latter of England’s two games, staking a claim to be considered as a top-class defender, rather than midfielder, as he reaches the latter stages of his career. You have to think that Harry Kane will start up front in the summer, but will he play on his own or in a partnership (considering the other striking options Southgate has at his disposal, such as Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford)? We weren’t even able to see debuts from goalkeeper Nick Pope or centre-back Alfie Mawson, with the latter seeming perfect for England’s system of playing out from the back due to his excellent passing range. Taking all this in to account, Southgate is sure to have some sleepless nights ahead of him while trying to construct a 23-man squad that contains the correct mixture of experience, youth, ability and game-time, to attempt to lead England to World Cup success.