Anyone who has ever spent some time in the company of Gareth Southgate will know he is a courteous, polite and softly spoken individual.

The fear when he was promoted from the under-21s to the senior job was that he was a ‘yes-man’, someone the FA could rely on to do what they said, and to not make a fuss.

That was never a fair tag, but now is the ultimate chance to show he is his own man; that he can make the big calls and show some real conviction.

Approaching the World Cup in Russia, where England will face Tunisia, Panama and then Belgium, he needs to show his ruthless side again. There are multiple question marks that remain over the squad he has available to choose from; this is not a time to be quiet, but one to make the big decisions.

The time for experiments should have been a year or eighteen months ago, but Southgate has had little choice. Very few players are nailed on starters for their clubs, and predicting the eleven that will take to the field in the Volgograd Arena on June 18 against Tunisia is impossible at this stage.

Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Kyle Walker aside, every other position is still up for grabs; hardly ideal preparation for Southgate’s first major tournament.

With every tournament, the expectation in this country gets lower and lower. Getting out of the group is now a rather toned-down, if realistic, ambition. Anything more is a bonus.

That, though, takes nothing away from the big decisions that Southgate must make. If he gets them wrong, his maiden tournament might also be his last.

Between the sticks

Having a goalkeeper that knows how those in front of him perform is crucial to any side. Consistency in goal is paramount, but that will not happen here. It remains anyone’s guess who will claim the shirt.

Joe Hart is the experienced option, but he was out of the West Ham team for a long time this season as David Moyes opted for Adrian instead. He has now been restored at the London Stadium but is not the goalkeeper that he once was and has done nothing to justify a place for England, in truth.

It was telling that he went out on loan to Torino last season, where he failed to pull up any trees.

Elsewhere, Nick Pope has been very impressive for Burnley, but has never played an international game and was playing in non-league not that long ago.

Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland are both inexperienced and have not been in their best form for Everton and Stoke City respectively. As much as they are bright prospects, neither looks ready for this summer.

At this point, it seems Butland and Pickford are the frontrunners, but the next two friendlies will say a lot about who is winning the race to be number one, and who might even miss out on the 23-man squad.

Midfield dilemmas

In times gone by, Paul Scholes was shifted out wide for England such was the level of talent in the centre of the park. In 2018, that is far from being the case.

England have quality options, but there is a distinct lack of depth and a worrying lack of game time for many.

Adam Lallana, for example, England’s player of the year in 2016, has been injured for most of the season and is far from match-fit. He has played a total of 374 minutes for his club this season, and in his only full game – against FC Porto in the Champions League last-16 second leg – he looked well off the pace.

Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere have been unreliable in terms of injuries in recent months, with the latter already having pulled out of the Holland friendly having picked up a knock.

Alli has not had as good a season as he did in 2016/17, but will still make the line-up as long as he is fit, in a rare example of someone who looks a certainty.

The lack of options has seen Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook come into the squad, and Jake Livermore has been recalled despite playing for the worst team in the English top flight. Neither are bad players, but equally neither are elite midfielders that inspire confidence that England can make a splash on the world stage.

Eric Dier is also an option but is far too similar to Henderson to play both at once. He may feature in defence, anyway.

Back three?

The final major dilemma is whether to use a back four or a back three. Southgate utilised a back three against Germany and Brazil in the previous round of friendlies as England held the World Champions and then Neymar and co to successive goalless draws, as well as the final qualifying game against Lithuania in October, suggesting it might be what he will choose to do.

The question, then, though, would be over who the three might be. Joe Gomez is more than capable of playing in a back three but would be a big risk at the age of 20, whilst John Stones should be a certainty, but he has been on the bench recently for Manchester City since they signed Aymeric Laporte in January.

It would be a big ask for Harry Maguire, Alfie Mawson or James Tarkowski, all of whom have very limited international experience.

Tarkowski, in particular, is unused to playing in an expansive side – Michael Keane is the only example necessary to show that taking a player out of the structure that Sean Dyche has at Burnley can make him seem a very different player.

At this moment in time, Stones, Dier and Maguire look most likely trio, but that is by no means fixed.

No one is expecting England to win the World Cup, but answering these three questions might ensure they do not crash out in embarrassing fashion, as they did against Iceland at Euro 2016.

By Matt Addison – @MattAddison97

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