England kicked off their World Cup qualifiers with two wins from two after victories over San Marino and Albania.
In truth it was the minimum expectation for Gareth Southgate’s side from their opening two games, but they took six points with the minimum of fuss ahead of a sterner test against Poland on Wednesday as the Three Lions began their route to Qatar.
That isn’t the end-game right now for Southgate and his side however, with this summer’s re-arranged European Championships fast approaching.
England currently are favourites for the tournament along with world champions France; the possibility of five matches out of a seven being at Wembley – all three group games plus the potential semi-final and final – certainly strengthens their claim.
Southgate must whittle his squad down to 23 before the tournament, and no matter whom he chooses, there will be some kind of outcry somewhere with regards players missing out; witness the furore that greeted Trent Alexander-Arnold’s absence from the current squad.
Right-back is undoubtedly an area of strength for England, but now there is a similar story on the opposite side.
The growth of Ben Chilwell in the past two years and the re-emergence of Manchester United’s Luke Shaw offers two top-class left-backs vying for the position.
The battle between them – plus Bukayo Saka’s development and ability to play there, although he is undoubtedly better in other areas – offers a stark contrast to the 2018 World Cup, where an out-of-position Ashley Young was first-choice, backed up by Danny Rose.
Shaw returned for his first cap since September 2018 and impressed in Albania, defending stoutly throughout and delivering the cross for Harry Kane to nod home the opener in the 2-0 victory.
It appears increasingly likely that, fitness permitting, both men will be named in the final 23 this summer and Shaw’s ability to play as the left-sided centre-back in a back three offers the option of using both if England again make use of a 3-4-3 formation.
But it is the left-back berth which both undoubtedly prefer and their battle for that single place will be one of Southgate’s toughest decisions when he picks his starting XI for the meeting with Croatia on June 13 in the side’s opening fixture.
Ashley Cole, who of course won 107 caps for England, believes Shaw’s renaissance at United and his performance on his return, has him slightly ahead of Chilwell in their personal battle right now.
“I think it’s a tight one between Shaw who I think is just pipping it at the minute,” Cole declared, speaking on ITV.
“I think he is playing more consistently for Manchester United, whereas Chilwell – some days he plays [for Chelsea] and some days he don’t.
“I think at the moment Shaw is in the lead.
“But who knows? Going into the last games of the Premier League season, who can hold their nerve and keep that consistency up before the squad gets announced.”
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That sentiment is shared by former Manchester United captain Roy Keane, who believes Shaw’s development from a defensive standpoint gives him the advantage.
“This year he’s been outstanding,” said Keane. “I know he’s had issues under [Jose] Mourinho, obviously, but he’s been consistent this year.
“Going forward but defensively I think he has the edge over the other full-backs in the England squad.
“He’s improved that and no one has really got the better of him this season one vs one.”
Who Southgate selects against Poland may well offer further clues into his thinking for the position moving forwards.
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