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Paul Merson picks England's strongest starting XI

The Three Lions have excellent players in their ranks
The Three Lions have excellent players in their ranks
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Paul Merson

England weren't good last week, were they? Their 4-0 defeat against Hungary in the UEFA Nations League could serve as a wake-up call ahead of the World Cup this year.

These Nations League games don't really matter. When they started the competition, I thought it was a good idea because we didn't have a lot of international games at the time. With the World Cup taking place in early November, however, playing Nations League matches in the middle of June seems like a waste of time to me.

The defeat against Hungary is good preparation for England - it's better for it to happen now. I'm not panicking, and the 'Southgate Out' shouts are ridiculous. He got England to the Euro finals and the World Cup semi-finals! Who else do they want to bring in?

From Stockport to Wembley. This is @PhilFoden x Stanley. This is football. #TakeYourChance https://t.co/q03e6vRKdg

I thought the defeat was a good result for Gareth Southgate. I say that because this past year, everyone's talking about our free-flowing players and how we should attack more. Look what happened! We are terrible at the back.

We might keep clean sheets against third-rate teams in friendlies, but when we are up against the crème de la crème, we need three at the back. As long as Gareth Southgate keeps his job - and I'm a hundred percent sure he will - these are good results for him.

You don't need six attacking players on the team to be entertaining. John Stones and Harry Maguire are not going to win England the World Cup playing at the back - Kyle Walker has got to play with them.

England are better off with three at the back

We didn't play well against Italy, but we didn't concede a goal either. Gareth Southgate has been successful when he's played his own way, and this result has done him a world of good. I think he started listening to the person behind the goal in this game - he thought, "I'd better make this entertaining!" This defeat has shown the world that we need to keep it tight at the back.

When Gareth Southgate first came in, the England team picked itself. Now, he has too many players to pick from, and this is a problem. You don’t want too many choices. It’s an absolute nightmare.

Managing the England team puts you in a catch-22 situation. If you play three at the back, you cop plenty of criticism for not being attacking enough. If you play four at the back against lesser teams, you don't get enough time to work on your system and suffer defeat against the better teams.

Gareth Southgate will play it safe in the World Cup. When it was going well against Hungary, Bukayo Saka and Jarrod Bowen came off. He took off the players he wanted to watch - fringe players who are unlikely to make it to the World Cup. As far as England's best eleven is concerned, I don't think we'll get too many surprises.


Goalkeeper - Jordan Pickford

Jordan Pickford is at the top of the pecking order
Jordan Pickford is at the top of the pecking order

Going into a World Cup, you need a goalkeeper with experience. We've seen it before with Scott Carson against Croatia - a good goalkeeper but wasn't used to matches played at the international level.

You need caps to play in the World Cup, and Jordan Pickford has just them. He has big-game experience. There's nothing else separating Pickford and Aaron Ramsdale at the moment.

I don't think the first three months of the Premier League season will make much of a difference. Gareth Southgate has placed his trust in Pickford and will persist with him in the World Cup.


Centre-Backs - Harry Maguire, John Stones, Kyle Walker

England Training Session
England Training Session

England need a three-man defence, and Harry Maguire is set to be on the left side. John Stones will be preferred in the centre, and England will need Kyle Walker to play in a three-man defence.

Walker is versatile and can shift to right-back if England want to quickly switch to a back four. If Stones doesn't play in the centre, Southgate should consider Conor Coady as an option. A three-man defence is a harder formation to play in, and Coady's been playing in this system for most of his career.


Wing-backs - Ben Chilwell, Trent Alexander-Arnold (Reece James)

Trent Alexander-Arnold is an excellent passer
Trent Alexander-Arnold is an excellent passer

The right wing-back depends on who England are playing against. In the group stages, I'd stick with Trent Alexander-Arnold. He's one of the best in the country at passing the ball, and can break teams down with a single pass.

When England are playing against the better teams - Brazil, Argentina, France, and Belgium - I'd pick Reece James. Alexander-Arnold is not particularly safe at the back, and I'd prefer James over him in these matches.

On the left flank, we'll have to see how Ben Chilwell performs after his injury. If he's fit, I'd definitely go with him. Kieran Trippier will be in the squad and will be an able back-up. Luke Shaw's performances are very hot and cold - he has spurts of top performances and if he can sustain them for the next three months, he could make it to the World Cup.


Midfield - Declan Rice, Mason Mount

Chelsea v West Ham United - Premier League
Chelsea v West Ham United - Premier League

England should play only one defensive midfielder, and I'd go with Declan Rice in a holding position. If you're going to play three defenders at the back, having both Kalvin Phillips and Rice in midfield is just a waste of time.

If we aren't doing well and come up against a team like Argentina in a knock-out game, however, a horses-for-courses approach with two defensive midfielders would make sense. But when we're playing our first few games in the group, I don't see why England would field more than one defensive midfielder.

Jordan Henderson is very experienced - he won't go all over the place, and he brings an air of calmness to the team. I'd pick him ahead of Kalvin Phillips in the World Cup.

A very disappointing night for sure but a bit of perspective needed. We’ll take it on the chin and carry on preparation for another big tournament ahead. Time for a break now and come back stronger for what’s coming up. Thanks for all your support this camp. 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 https://t.co/h1R5KoHVTn

In my opinion, Mason Mount has to play. People feel that his presence makes England too open in midfield. But we have three defenders at the back, two wing-backs, and a defensive midfielder. I'd want my other four players to go and win football matches for me.

Mount is probably one of the most intelligent players in the England team. He can play just in front of Rice and he'll do the job. Three forwards don't do enough damage - you need someone who can give them the ball.

Jude Bellingham is also a great player, but he wasn't particularly impressive the other day. Mason Mount is disciplined, and I think he's the perfect creative presence in England's midfield.


Wingers - Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling

Manchester City v Newcastle United - Premier League
Manchester City v Newcastle United - Premier League

Raheem Sterling would be my first-choice winger in the World Cup. He turns up regularly for England, and I don't think he gets the credit he deserves. He works hard off the ball and will play an important role in the World Cup.

I'd go with Phil Foden to be Sterling's partner-in-crime. The likes of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho will need a big three months to seal a place in the side. Rashford has been around for a long time and could make it, but Sancho doesn't have much of a chance.


Striker - Harry Kane

Harry Kane has been impressive this year
Harry Kane has been impressive this year

I don't see much of a debate here - Harry Kane plays up front. He's a shoo-in for the World Cup, and I can't believe he's played in these Nations League matches, to be honest. He should've been on holiday - now he only gets three weeks.

We need Harry Kane to be fit and fresh for the World Cup. He also needs runners around him - there's no point in him dropping deep if no one's making the runs. Raheem Sterling is the perfect foil for Harry Kane.


Edited by Paul Merson
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