LONDON (Reuters) - Only England’s most optimistic fans will believe Gareth Southgate can lead his side to World Cup glory in Russia this summer but by sticking to his beliefs and selecting a young squad, he will head east with the nation behind him.
Southgate’s 23-man squad will be the third-youngest England have sent to a World Cup with an average age of 26 when they face Tunisia in their opening match on June 18.
Only Chelsea defender Gary Cahill has more than 40 caps with rest averaging 19.
The likes of 22-year-old Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Dele Alli and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford, 20, have already established themselves in the squad, having been handed first call-ups by former manager Roy Hodgson.
But in selecting uncapped Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool’s 19-year-old right back, and Chelsea’s 22-year-old midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek as well as picking three young goalkeepers, Southgate has put his faith firmly in youth.
With the country’s youngsters winning the Under-17 World Cup and Under-19 Euros last year, there appears to be no shortage of talent coming through and Southgate, the former Under-21 coach, will not be afraid to use it.
That is for the future though and his first priority will be to make sure there is tangible progress in Russia where England should progress into the knockout stages from a group comprising Tunisia, outsiders Panama and Belgium.
A quarter-final showing would be deemed respectable but another debacle could nip Southgate’s project in the bud.
While there was general approval of Southgate’s selections on Wednesday, only during the heat of a Russian summer will his decisions be proved right or wrong.
With Joe Hart justifiably left out after a poor season for West Ham United, Southgate has Stoke City’s Jack Butland and Everton’s Jordan Pickford vying to start in goal with Burnley’s uncapped Nick Pope putting pressure on both.
Pickford, 24, and Butland, 25, are still callow and are prone to mistakes and will never have experienced the pressure cooker atmosphere of a World Cup stage.
At the opposite end of the pitch England have exciting options with Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy having scored 50 league goals between them this season while Rashford offers blistering pace and power that can unsettle the best defences.
Defensively England have plenty of options, although centre backs Gary Cahill and John Stones lack authority which is why Southgate is likely to favour a three-man defence featuring Kyle Walker with two attacking wing backs.
England conceded only three goals in qualifying but recent history shows they struggle against the world’s top forwards.
The midfield areas may ultimately decide whether England return proudly home or slink in through the back door.
While Alli, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard offer goals and pace and can almost be classified as auxiliary strikers, England lack the midfield mastermind capable of controlling the game and setting a tempo when things get tough.
Eric Dier is very much a defensive shield while Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson has often been criticised for his lack of creative threat even if he has enjoyed an outstanding season for Liverpool, leading them to the Champions League final.
While Southgate spoke of the pace and athleticism in his squad, Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey, both of whom were left out, offer a touch of the unpredictable.
He will hope that Loftus-Cheek, the Chelsea midfielder on loan at Crystal Palace, can be his unexpected wildcard.
Southgate will have much to ponder as he prepares for friendlies against Nigeria and Costa Rica, after which it is on to Russia where the talking will stop and the England will discover just where they stand in the world pecking order.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar