MANAGER Gareth Southgate will attempt to strike the balance between honing England’s tactics and firming up World Cup plans in the final match before naming his squad for Russia.
Just 90 minutes of international football remains before the Three Lions’ boss selects his travelling party, with Italy expected to prove a test sterner than their failure to qualify for this summer’s finals might suggest.
Southgate has already made his mind up on some players and shown his ruthless streak where necessary, with those bold calls helping the England manager to whittle his World Cup squad options to “probably 31, 32 players”.
Those selected for Friday’s 1-0 win in Holland have already bolstered their hopes of being on the plane and now it is up to his tweaked side to do the same against the Azzurri at a sold-out Wembley tonight.
“There’s a lot of objectives really,” Southgate said. “The same as Friday. We want to build on the performance in Holland.
“We’ve only played the system a few times, but this is a really good test because against the 4-3-3 Brazil, we didn’t play out of pressure so well.
“We’ve got to cope with that, got to have the confidence to play and to find the solutions to play through them. We’ve got to try to be more effective in the final third of the field.
“And also we want to look at a couple of different players and a couple of different options, as we did on Friday. So, there’s lots of things you’re trying to get from the game.
“The week up to now has been a real success in terms of the attitude, the approach, the way we’ve trained.
“I think we’ve advanced a lot, the players are a lot clearer of the messages of how we want to play, and that showed in the game. That takes time, but definitely I think we’ve made breakthroughs in that.”
Southgate’s choice of starting line-up and captain will be interesting at Wembley, with goalkeeper Jack Butland the only confirmed starter as the England manager looks to select his No 1.
Jordan Pickford performed well in his audition on Friday, showing confidence in possession as well as a sturdiness between the sticks that helped England’s ball-playing, three-man defence keep a fifth successive clean sheet.
“We’ve got to get the balance of those things, you know? Your primary job is to get clean sheets,” Southgate said.
“If you speak to Kyle (Walker), John (Stones) or Harry (Maguire) after the other night, the biggest thrill for them was a clean sheet. Then, because they can all use the ball, that’s the additional bonus and that’s very much how we want to play. If we can keep the ball better we’ve less defending to do.
“But the basics of blocks, making sure you get in the way of shots, those things never change. The fundamentals of defending will help us to be a good team.”
Few have epitomised defensive organisation better over the years than tonight’s opponents.
Southgate was full of praise for Italy’s “legendary” goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and did not buy into talk of their opponents being in crisis, despite their lack of full-time manager and football federation president being compounded by missing the World Cup.
“Italian football, I’ve always been a huge admirer,” Southgate said. “The detail with which they play.
“As a defender, of course, they are the best. The tactical organisation, the detail of marking.
“The art of defending, because it is an art in my opinion, and it’s often neglected by people and undervalued.
“But when you see the likes of not only this team, but the teams I played against, (Alessandro) Nesta, (Fabio) Cannavaro, (Paolo) Maldini, the best, the absolute best.
“We know to score goals against an Italian team is the toughest possible test.
“And we know they’ll be really well organised and press us well. So, it’s a really good test for us to see how far we’ve come.”
Lewis Cook, James Tarkowski and ex-Barnsley man Alfie Mawson will hope to win their first caps tonight, when Southgate hopes his players can continue to learn “the nuts and bolts” of playing with a three-man defence.
Former Sheffield United and Hull City centre-back Maguire has slotted in well to that formation, but is likely to be rested after sustaining a slight hamstring complaint in Holland, where Jordan Henderson captained the side.
Southgate was unable to name tonight’s captain during yesterday’s pre-match press conference as he had not finalised his line-up, but Raheem Sterling’s place alongside him at Tottenham’s training ground suggested he will be involved.