England face potentially testing opposition when they begin their build up to the World Cup with a friendly match at home to Nigeria at Wembley on Saturday (5.15pm live on ITV).
Gareth Southgate was perhaps not the most exciting choice as England head coach, and he doesn’t have a glowing record of previous success to back him up, but he has approached the job in an intelligent and structured manner that at least provides some reason for optimism.
England qualified for Russia 2018 with an undefeated record of eight wins and two draws and enter the final stages of their preparations for the World Cup on an eight-match unbeaten run that has included draws against Germany, Brazil and Italy and victories over the Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Two things stand out from Southgate’s squad selection for the tournament. Firstly, despite the inclusion of a few older players, it is a young and relatively inexperienced group, with Gary Cahill the only player with over 50 caps to his name and no others with more than 40. Secondly, that there are a number of players capable of performing in various positions.
Flexibility can be an important quality during a competition as short and intense as the World Cup. While Southgate appears to have his mind more or less made up in terms of his starting system, the selection of players such as Ashley Young, Fabian Delph and even of Eric Dier provides him with interesting options to change things up during the course of a match.
Kyle Walker performed solidly as a central defender during England’s friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy in March. That seems to be the role that Southgate has marked out for him at the World Cup given the presence of Kieran Trippier and the uncapped Liverpool youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold as natural options in his normal right-back position. Saturday’s match is likely to provide him with welcome practice in the centre.
In general, one would imagine that Southgate will start with more or less what he considers to be his strongest starting XI. While the rhythm of the match, and the validity of any conclusions that may be drawn from it, will almost certainly be disrupted by second-half changes, the first hour or so will give a decent picture of where England stand at this stage.
Nigeria should not be taken lightly. They, too, are in the midst of a World Cup warm up program that began with a valedictory 1-1 draw at home to DR Congo in Port Harcourt on Monday. They topped their potentially difficult final qualifying group in Africa with an unbeaten record and have since recorded friendly victories over Argentina and Poland.
German coach Gernor Rohr still has a few decisions to mull over as he seeks to whittle down his preliminary squad to the 23 men who will represent Nigeria in Russia. Forwards Junior Lokosa and Simeon Nwankwo were both handed debuts against DR Congo, but only one or the other is likely to make it, while other marginal calls will soon need to be made.
Nigeria have a number of players who will be familiar to Premier League audiences, including Chelsea’s Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi of Arsenal, the Leicester City pair of Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi, and former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, the team’s captain and elder statesman. There is a good mix of youth and experience in the group.
Moses, Mikel and Odion Ighalo, formerly of Watford, are likely to start on Saturday in a stronger lineup than in the draw with DR Congo. Ndidi could also get some minutes as he seeks to overcome minor fitness issues. Young goalkeeper Francis Uzoho would take a fifth consecutive start as a good indication that he will be the country’s first choice this summer.
Nigeria are a decent team, and their 4-2 victory over Argentina last November showed them to be a dangerous side on the break, capable of attacking with pace and incision. England are still the most likely victors, but it is unlikely to be a match short on goals. That is a thought we will carry forward with an eye on the bookies’ prices