It’s World Cup warm-up time, and Gareth Southgate just has one or two billion questions to answer over the course of the next four games before the boys fly out to Russia.
Who’s in goal, what’s our ruddy formation, who plays in it, and where are all the delicious hard-boiled goals going to come from? A big test in Amsterdam on Friday should at least put some of the horse-faced gaffer’s wilder theories to bed.
Pope Nicholas I?
Joey Hart’s gone from holding the one position we didn’t have to think about, to being the most obvious Potential Banana Skin (PBS) in the squad. Since leaving City for the gutters of Torino and Stratford in search of games, he’s had so many poor outings that now every one is a stress test for the highly-strung dandruff-busting stopper.
Those of us who see ‘probably better than Adrián’ as a criteria for playing for England will be looking past Hart at Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland or Nick Pope. With Stoke and Everton keeping fewer clean sheets than your granny’s nursing home this season, the stats are with Burnley’s pleasingly lanky former milkman.
Pick 'n Mix - Everton's No.1 looks to have got the nod in Netherlands - Image PA
Are any of them really up to scratch? It’s fairly difficult to say. Butland and Pickford have both shipped a heap this season and, whilst Pope has undoubtedly impressed, his much tidier goals against column is undoubtedly helped by a competent defence ahead of him and thus having far fewer efforts to keep out than the other two.
Without stating the bleeding obvious, you don’t win major tournaments with ‘alright’ keepers, it doesn’t happen.
Ah, remember Euro 1996? When back to back PFA Goalkeeper of the Year winning Tim Flowers couldn’t get so much as a sniff of the No.1 shirt because of big Dave Seaman and his lovely ‘tache? Halcyon days indeed.
Defending - A Passing Fad?
You don’t have to look too far up the team-sheet to spot Southgate’s problemo numero dos, tres and cuatro: defenders. First: how many; and second: who?
At least there’s the suggestion of an exciting game-plan, with slick passing defenders preferred to more the gritty and seasoned (read cack-footed) warriors left behind.
Joe Gomez will keep his place after a man of the match performance in the 0-0 friendly with Brazil, while Harry Maguire’s mixture of bulk and silk should see him in contention for a starting spot, perhaps in a back-three with Eric Dier and John Stones.
Genuinely excited about this new identity but a first-choice keeper and defensive partnership need to emerge sharpish. If the experiment fails in the friendlies, Southgate would be brave man to resist calls to reinstate Cahill, Smalling and Jones come May. Stay strong Gareth - never forget what happened when we went to consecutive World Cups with snake hipped creators like Matthew Upson and Phil Jagielka as first picks in the No.5 shirt.
Koeman’s Rebuild In The ‘Dam
Friday’ opponents come into the friendly having fallen a long, long way since finishing 2nd & 3rd at the last two World Cups, and an unrecognisable squad have risen from the wreckage of their failed qualifying campaign for Russia.
It’s Ronnie Koeman’s first game in charge of a group of inexperienced colts, with old warhorses Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Klaas Jan Huntelaar all melted down for glue.
Apparently the bottom of Everton’s bin has become the first place the Low Countries root around in the hunt for new managers.
But unlike Bobby Martinez in Belgium, Big Jowly Ron has precious little elite talent to pick from the business ends of Europe’s big leagues.
Only Wijnaldum and van Dijk at Liverpool, and Roma’s Kevin Strootman can really claim to belong in this category – making England favourites on paper despite their glaring uncertainties.
Will The Oranje Sun Rise Again?
And despite the lack of truly established names, the Dutch still have plenty of players capable of testing Gareth Southgate’s boys’ nerve.
Memphis Depay is currently flying at Lyon with 13 goals and 9 assists to his name already this season, achieved while stubbornly refusing to touch the ball with his left peg.
Another contender for the heir to Robben’s throne is Quincy Promes. Also a wide-man who's making waves just outside Europe's truly elite leagues with Spartak Moscow.
Crowned Russian Footballer of the Year 2017, he's similarly notching up goals and assists (13 and 8 respectively) at a tidy rate this term. Also a word on a man who's making everyone feel terribly old. Justin Kluivert – Paddy’s son – is a wriggly winger with a nose for a nutmeg worthy of Greg Wallace and could make his debut here.
And at the back Matthijs de Ligt is an option for the future – already captain of Ajax aged 18, he’ll be snapped up by Barcelona before you can say ‘what happened to Ron Vlaar?’
There's a heap of potential there, can Ronny mould it into something slightly more special than his achingly turgid Everton team?
Tournament Goals – Remember Them?
England have scored a measly six goals in the past two major tourneys. As we head towards our first competition of the post-Wazza era, who will fill the human jacket potato’s often wayward shooting boots?
The squad for the Holland game brings a grim track record along, with Ashley Young boasting the second-highest number of international goals in the entire camp.
Yeah, Ashley Young. Scored the last of his seven England goals in an 8-0 free-for-all against San Marino in 2013. Now plays left-back in a Mourinho team. Missed that penalty against Italy at Euro 2012. That Ashley Young.
What a bang v the Marino though:
Statistically speaking, who’s leading the England goal charge then? Dat Guy Welbz. With 15 in 36 caps his international record stands up, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that as he enters his 10th year as a professional footballer he’s still two strikes shy of John Terry’s Premier League goals tally of 41.
Still, you can get your hopes up about Raheem Sterling’s 21 goals this season in 39 appearances for City. Just don’t mention his 2 in 35 for England, and pray Harry Kane won’t have another month-long goal drought after his injury-enforced holiday.
If that happens, net-bothering duties could rest on Jamie Vardy, whose goal against the Albion at the weekend was a masterclass in laser-guided accuracy. Pow.
Is Gareth Southgate Trolling?
By calling up James Tarkowski instead of Michael Keane, Southgate is sending a great big thumbs up to the opposing manager, who signed Keane for a vaguelly disasterous £30 million just seven short months ago.
Selecting Jake Livermore is surely a burn too. I’m not quite sure who its aimed at - possibly Rafa Benitez? But how else do you explain the inclusion of a man who has won one single solitary game since August and treats the football like it might well be contaminated, over Jonjo Shelvey?
England haven’t beaten the Netherlands since Trainspotting came out, so this is no time for mucking about Gareth, there’s a major tournament to prepare for and the nation needs a lift.
If only there was some relevant footage of Southgate’s England team scoring whenever they wanted against a quality Dutch outfit…