GARETH SOUTHGATE already has a good idea about his World Cup squad, with as few as three places left up for grabs after encouraging England displays.
Two warm-up friendlies and 82 days now stand between the Three Lions and their highly-anticipated Group G opener against Tunisia following the last international meet-up before the travelling party is named.
Friday’s promising 1-0 win in Holland was complemented by another heartening display at a sold-out Wembley, where the video assistant referee’s controversial intervention led to a penalty that allowed Italy to snatch a 1-1 draw.
While frustrated by the use of video technology on Tuesday, Southgate (pictured above) ends the international break in a positive mood as not only is the style of performance improving but his World Cup plans becoming clearer.
‘I don’t think we’ve seen things that have necessarily surprised us,’ Southgate said of the international meet up.
‘But there have been some really strong performances from individuals that have cemented, I don’t say their place in the squad, because I think 19 or 20 of those we’re pretty clear on.
‘It’s often who are the next ones in if we get a problem in a particular area.
‘So, it was really good to see James Tarkowski tonight because we’ve got people that we feel can play in a back three and have done well, but he showed he could cope with international football against good opposition.
‘Very comfortable on the ball, played some really calm moments.
‘Kyle Walker’s position has clearly been a huge plus for us, but again not a surprise because we know the huge attributes that he has.
‘As an exercise and the things we’ve tried, we’ve learned a lot from the week.’
FIFA requires Southgate to name a provisional 35-man squad by May 14, with it needed to be whittled down to a 23-strong group by June 4.
The England manager’s approach to Russia is becoming clearer and recent matches have given the former defender cause for optimism.
‘We’d love to be ranked third in the world and all our players with 50 caps and everything else,’ Southgate said. ‘But we’re not.
‘Everybody knows the history of the last couple of years, so I don’t need to go through that because we have got to look forward.
‘But in terms of the last four games, we’ve played four of the biggest football countries in the world. They’re at different levels of progression, we’ve been competitive in every game.
‘I think our patterns of play have become far clearer to everybody. We will improve that the more we work together, we will improve that.
‘And what’s really pleasing is they are working and solving problems on the pitch themselves at times: changes of formation from the opposition, patterns of working their way through different pressing strategies.
‘That’s a real plus, that they’re taking that responsibility and identifying those things.
‘That will only improve the more we work together so I’m really looking forward to getting them back together as a group and the lead into what is a fantastic, exciting tournament for us.’
The World Cup cannot come soon enough for Southgate, even if that means the resumption of questions about off-field matters.
The UK’s relationship with hosts Russia is strained after the Salisbury poisoning, with the fallout continuing as NATO expelled seven Russian diplomats on Tuesday.
Southgate was unaware about the latest development immediately after the draw against Italy, but believes talk of England boycotting the finals has been quelled.
‘I have got to prepare the team and focus on what I can effect,’ the Three Lions boss said.
‘I know I will be updated appropriately on everything that happens and I know the desire from the government and everybody else is that we go to the World Cup.
‘So, I’ve got to keep preparing the team and my priority is to try and keep improving the team, working with the players that we’ve got.
‘And I feel that we’ve made a positive progression over the last 10 days.’