England secured their passage to the 2018 World Cup with 1-0 victories over Slovenia and Lithuania. The Three Lions can now look forward to another summer festival of football, but who should travel to Russia as part of the squad next year?
Gareth Southgate has shown he is not afraid of making bold decisions, bringing several uncapped youngsters into recent squads and tinkering tactically with the 3-4-2-1 system that has been utilised by a number of Premier League clubs.
However, what if he were to go one step further with his selections and base his call-ups on the statistics? Here, Football Whispers answers that very question, crunching the data from the season so far and picking England’s starting XI, as well as the deserving back-ups, on that basis.
Southgate has opted for a 4-2-3-1 system on eight occasions during his 12 matches in charge of the national team, so that is the shape we have opted for here. On that basis, we considered what metrics should be used to define the performances of full-backs and centre-backs within a back four.
For the central defence, tackles and aerial duels were obviously highly relevant. However, given England’s displays at Euro 2016 against conservative opposition, where they struggled to break down deep defensive blocks, we also included take-ons and pass success as important data.
When it came to accuracy of passing, no centre-back could top John Stones. The Manchester City man’s 97 per cent completion was the highest of all English players in his position, though Manchester United rival Phil Jones came close at 94 per cent.
When it came to dribbles, Leicester City’s Harry Maguire topped the list with one per 90 minutes, while he also boasts an impressive success rate of 75 per cent. The only players to come remotely near that were Gary Cahill and Rob Holding, who have tallied 0.4 and 0.37 per 90 respectively.
From a purely defensive standpoint, Maguire is also up there with 1.33 tackles on average, a figure equalled by new Everton signing Michael Keane. And the former Burnley man tops the aerial duels column, winning 3.17 per 90 minutes.
Combining Keane’s solid fundamentals with Stones’ greater possession play would appear sensible for creating the best centre-back partnership, while Maguire and Jones are the best back-up options according to the numbers.
At full-back, tackles, dribbles, key passes and pass success were considered the key metrics, though it was difficult to separate out the right-sided players from one another. Some, such as Joel Ward of Crystal Palace and Kyle Naughton of Swansea City, appear to excel defensively; others, such as Adam Smith of Bournemouth do better going forward.
At left-back, West Brom's Kieran Gibbs and West Ham United's Aaron Cresswell out-performed Ryan Bertrand. The former just gets the nod having completed more dribbles than anyone considered for selection while also averaging more tackles. The West Ham man’s 1.8 key passes per 90 minutes are better than anyone else in his position.
In terms of pass success, Kyle Walker’s 89 per cent completion rate is higher than any other English full-back thus far this season. That is enough to give him the nod at right-back, just ahead of the aforementioned Smith.
Behind the back four, we looked at successful claims, distribution and saves. Everton’s Jordan Pickford just came out on top, though Burnley’s Nick Pope ran him close. Joe Hart didn’t top any column, but his overall performance in each category was consistently among the best.
In his two-man central midfield, Southgate needs players capable of protecting the defence intelligently and contributing positively to the build-up and progression of attacks. With this in mind, we deemed the following data the most important: tackles, dribbles, pass success and key passes.
Fabian Delph topped all bar the latter category with ease, though it’s worth noting he simply hasn’t played enough games and has chiefly featured at left-back for Manchester City this term. If he can maintain his current numbers over a larger sample size of matches, he would be a shoe-in for one of the two central roles.
Delph was challenged defensively by Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson and Hammers captain Mark Noble, who average 2.29 and 1.94 tackles per 90 minutes respectively. Meanwhile, in terms of pass accuracy, Tottenham Hotspur duo Eric Dier and Harry Winks topped with 88 and 87 per cent.
One surprise contender to emerge in each of these categories was Brighton and Hove Albion’s Dale Stephens, who has completed two tackles per 90 minutes while achieving 86 per cent pass accuracy. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feature so highly when it comes to take-ons and creating chances.
Noble has averaged more key passes than anyone else considered here, with Swansea City’s Tom Carroll the only one to challenge his 1.46, with 1.44. Liverpool holding midfielder Henderson backs them up with 1.17.
Dier’s high pass success percentage is enough for him to retain his place, though, surprisingly, Noble appears a slightly more worthy partner to him than Henderson, who sits on our bench alongside Carroll.
For attacking midfielders and wingers, we looked at shots, dribbles, passes and chances created as key metrics. Southgate’s 4-2-3-1 requires one No.10 to be flanked by two wide men, and there were a few clear contenders for each of these roles.
In the attacking midfield role, Real Madrid transfer target Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are the clear first-choice candidates. The latter has averaged an exceptional 4.41 take-ons per game, but he is bested by the former in terms of shot accuracy and key passes.
In the wide areas, four players have proven themselves to be the most consistent contributors. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may have been pilloried of late, but his 4.78 dribbles per 90 minutes is better than anyone else in this area. So too is his 86 per cent pass success rate.
The only player who can best the Liverpool man in terms of chances created is Southampton’s Nathan Redmond, who makes 2.1 on average. Meanwhile, Raheem Sterling is among the top performers for dribbles, pass completion and key passes. He also tops the finishing list, having averaged 4.41 shots at 47 per cent accuracy.
Up front, we went with the same metrics as above, though we swapped out pass success for aerial duels won. With one man leading the line, Southgate will want his centre-forward to be strong in the air should the occasional direct ball over the top be necessary.
The outstanding candidate here was, obviously, Harry Kane. He has attempted more shots per 90 minutes than any other English striker – 6.41 – while also managing an impressive 53 per cent success rate with his finishes. In addition, only three men win more headers on average, and only four create more chances.
Marcus Rashford competes with the Tottenham hitman in most of the four categories, even besting him in terms of successful take-ons – he has completed 2.69 on average, with a 45 per cent completion rate.
Daniel Sturridge has the best numbers of the bunch for dribbles and key passes, but he – like Delph – hasn’t gotten enough minutes under his belt thus far. Should he continue to rack up the numbers in the aforementioned metrics as a regular starter at Liverpool, there would be a real case for him starting ahead of Kane.
On the basis of the data available, below is the XI we believe should start for England in Southgate’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system.
Reserves: Nick Pope, Joe Hart – Adam Smith, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Aaron Cresswell – Jordan Henderson, Tom Carroll – Andros Townsend, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – Marcus Rashford