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World Cup - Football: Guehi in with Southgate set to tinker

With 249 days to go until World Cup 2022 kicks off in Qatar, every move England head coach Gareth Southgate makes is sure to be scrutinised closely.

Thursday again saw the England boss raise eyebrows with his selection for this month's internationals, with the Three Lions set for friendlies against Switzerland on 26th March and Ivory Coast three days later.

The games arguably begin the countdown to the finals and Southgate looks set to experiment. Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi - who was born in Ivory Coast - has received his maiden call-up to the full England squad, while there are also recalls for midfielder Conor Gallagher, Arsenal defender Ben White and Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope.

Return to a back three?

England play four times in June, all of them in Group A3 of the Nations League and the Three Lions are 8/1 to win that tournament in which they will travel to Hungary and Germany, before hosting their Euro 2020 conquerors Italy and resuming rivalries with the Hungarians.

With the first three of those games likely to be played in a similar atmosphere to a major tournament, Southgate will be approaching them as if they are the real deal. That's not to say he'll be looking beyond the Swiss and the Ivorians, but he does have a chance to tinker.

After more often than not favouring a flat four in the autumn, his squad selection hints at a back three for March.

Both three and four-men defences have been used to great success in his time in charge. However, with six recognised central defenders in Guehi, Wolves' Conor Coady, Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings, Man City's John Stones, Man Utd's Harry Maguire and White, he looks stacked at the back.

With Man Utd's Luke Shaw the only recognised left-back, Arsenal's Bukayo Saka could be pressed into a defensive role as cover, with Chelsea's Ben Chilwell currently out through injury.

Will this have made Rashford's mind up?

After hitting the post with his penalty in the shootout against Italy, the last eight or so months have been tough for Marcus Rashford.

A shoulder operation he initially delayed to play at the Euros meant his 2021/22 season didn't start until October and despite a flying start to the campaign, netting three times in his first four outings, he has struggled for consistency.

So much so that he has started just one of Man Utd's last four and there have been rumours that he may look to leave this summer.

Thursday's omission from the squad still came as a surprise, but Southgate's analysis was, as ever, honest, stating that the 24-year-old is "not at his best".

Ask most England fans to name their squad to win World Cup 2022, currently 15/2, and they'd almost include Rashford by default.

However, having fallen down the pecking order at Old Trafford, is it time to begin a new chapter at club level to revive his international career? If the rumours are to be believed, Barcelona are willing to give him that chance.

Not the end of the road for Walker

Another selection call that caught everyone out was the one to omit Kyle Walker, as the Man City star excelled in England's run to the Euro 2020 final and has been a key player for both club and country ever since.

However, Southgate has chosen to leave him out this month, although unlike when he was dropped in September 2019, the boss has insisted that the 31-year-old will be recalled for the games in June.

Southgate's reasoning centres on having a closer look at Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold and Chelsea's Reece James. The former leads the Premier League in assists with 11, but is still to transfer his domestic form on to the international stage.

James has six assists for the season and has played just three games since being hit by a hamstring injury in December. The 22-year-old has also missed Chelsea's last two outings but is expected to be back in time for England.

Alexander-Arnold and James have played alongside each other before, switching between right-back and central midfield in last September's 4-0 win over Andorra.

This time around, despite the abundance of central defensive talent, England fans may get to see James fulfil the Walker role on the right of the back three, allowing TAA extra freedom down the flanks.

Goalkeepers: Nick Pope, Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale.

Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Conor Coady, Marc Guehi, Reece James, Harry Maguire, Tyrone Mings, Luke Shaw, John Stones, Ben White.

Midfielders: Jude Bellingham, Conor Gallagher, Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount, Declan Rice, James Ward-Prowse.

Forwards: Tammy Abraham, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Raheem Sterling.

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